You heard right. It is not a bizarre number pulled out of some magician’s hat. There were an estimated over 1.4 million temporary foreign workers employed in the USA, back in 2013. That was 1% of the total labor force at the time, according to the Economic Policy Institute. They included the various flavors of H1, J1, L1, O1, F1 (with OPT) and their work permitted spouses. Of course, that was just the estimate of the number that were actually employed, leaving out the many more who were authorised to be employed, but still without a job.
Fast forward to the present times and there is no reason to believe that the intent of international workers, to be employed in the US, has gone down. What is also quite consistent is the desire for many of those temporary workers to transform their work visas into an eligibility for a permanent residence in the well-accepted land of opportunities. The road to an uninterrupted permanent green light to the green dollars of America is usually paved by the employment based Green Card.
Currently, there are nearly 90,000 H1B workers, nearly 8,000 L1, about 7,000 F1, and other lesser known temporary workers hanging in there with Green Card petitions in the immigration system (Source). Such employment based Green Cards form one of the many other categories towards permanent residency in the US. However, for the sake of this article, we will elaborate on the Employment Based Green Card category, with a brief touch on the others.
Types of Green Card Eligibility Categories
While employment or matrimonial based permanent residency are usually the road more frequently taken, there are certain other possible paths to a Green Card in the US.
- Green Card through Family: It pays to have a family member who is an American citizen, as long as you are close to them on the family tree – spouse, children, parent, fiancé, etc. Even permanent residents enjoy this privilege when it comes to their immediate relatives.
- Green Card as a Special Immigrant (EB 4): Religious workers wanting to be a part of a nonprofit religious organization, abused minors, Afghanistan or Iraq nationals who have had a history of working with the US government, international broadcasters, and diplomats and their families, can all try their chances at going green.
- Green Card through Asylum or Refuge status: Pretty self-explanatory. If America has granted you an asylum or refugee status, you will be eligible to seek a permanent residency in the country.
- Green Card for Victims of Crime, Abuse, and Human Trafficking: If you have endured cruelty and abuse at the hands of an American citizen, permanent resident, or in some cases an abused child or spouse of a Cuban national, you will be eligible to seek permanent residency. Also, victims of human trafficking or crime victims with a T, or U immigrant visa, are eligible.
- Physician National Interest Waiver: If you are a doctor who agrees to work in certain underserved areas, you might be eligible too.
- Immigrant Investor (EB 5): Do you have a million bucks? In dollars, that is. If you can spare half of that to invest in a commercial enterprise, in the US, you can claim a spot at the eligibility table as well.
Besides the above, certain other eligibility criteria rule in winners of Department of State’s diversity visa lottery, certain Cuban nationals, American Indians born in Canada, and more that you will find detailed on the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website. For a reverse perspective on a homecoming story from the US, read
- Reasons why NRIs are returning to India – Reverse Brain Drain
- My experience of returning from USA to India
Green Card through Employment
Let’s say you are an alien worker, the international kind and not the outer-space blue creature with an antenna, and you are legally employed in America. You will be eligible to apply through one of three kinds of Employment Based Green Cards, or EB categories.
- EB 1: The first preference priority workers who excel in the sciences, arts, education, business or athletics. They could also be exceptionally talented researchers or senior executives.
- EB 2: Second preference international workers with advanced degrees who possess an exceptional ability to do their jobs.
- EB 3: Third preference skilled professionals.
Your green card processing, under the employment based category, will go through multiple levels of clearing before you qualify for US residentship. A brief summary of the application process is collected below.
Employment Based Green Card Process
In the case of an employment Green Card, more often than not, the employer sponsors the “alien’s” petition. The intention, in this case, is that the employer is just as invested in retaining the employee under permanent payroll, without the headache of potentially losing out on them and their trained self, once the temporary work visas run their course. While it is more common for employers to sponsor existing international employees, the system also allows for employers to sponsor candidates who are not yet employed with them, or perhaps even outside the country.
Only a maximum of about 140K international workers are granted a Green Card under the employment category, with a cap of about 7% per country. So, this is probably the reason why the processing time differs between someone from a populous country like India, seeking a Green Card, vs someone from a smaller country with a fewer number of applicants to begin with.
Here’s an order of procedures that precede an EB Green Card.
- PERM Labor Certification: This is a rather lengthy step which can be bypassed if you are eligible to apply under the EB 1, EB 4, EB 5, or the National Interest Waiver, mentioned above. For the rest, namely the EB 2 and EB 3 categories, the employers need to establish an agreement with the Department of Labor that there are no other eligible American workers who could possibly be qualified, or even be interested in replacing the international professional. For the same, the employer also needs to be able to provide proof of the job title, task, wage and requirement for such an alien worker.
- Petition: Once the PERM is approved by the Department of Labor, the employer needs to rush the petition, on your behalf, within 6 months. If you happen to be under the National Interest Waiver or the EB 1, you can sponsor yourself. Which essentially means that instead of the employer, you can petition for yourself. But the more common route is when the employer files a Form I-140, Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker. The USCIS then goes through its own process of approving the petition.
- Immigrant Visa Number: Once the petition is approved, the USCIS issues an immigrant visa number. This is where the concept of a priority date shows up. There being a cap on the number of immigrant visa numbers issued each year, your petition may be approved but USCIS may still delay registering you a number if there are more petitioners than the cap. This priority date, as in how soon or how late can you get that visa number, is based on your application category and country of origin. If your priority date is current, you can get a visa number immediately and move on to the next step. Else, it may take a while, sometimes in the order of years.
- Form I-485 (Adjustment of Status): If the priority date is current, your employer or whoever is petitioning your case, can file the Form I-140 and Form I-485 concurrently. But for most cases, the date is not current and you will have to wait to get to be the first in the priority line to file an Adjustment of Status, Form I-485, or the Green Card application. This is the case if you are already in the US. If you are not, you go through a similar parallel route of a Consular Processing. In that case you enter the US with the immigrant visa and then become a permanent resident. Once the Form I-485 is submitted, your case goes on a pending status with the USCIS until the Green Card is finally approved. This processing time can be sometimes over 2 years.
- The big Green Card bash: Yes, that’s an essential too if you are able to patiently endure the rigmarole of the tenuous GC process. Uncork the champagne and invite us over, will you?
The fees, travel restrictions, renewals, and other queries are touched upon on the USCIS website. If your employer is taking care of the petition, you generally don’t have to bother about the finances. Also, if your I-485 is still pending, you can file a Form I-765 for an Application for Employment Authorization, or EAD, to work in the country. The nuances are dynamic and forever evolving. So, it is best advised that you keep your eyes open and sniff out the changes in the immigration system, if any, through your own research.
The processes, the forms and their numbers, the regulations and the regulations on the regulations, make Green Card application one of the hardest to live through, keeping sanity and hope alive. But it is, after all, the only way you can get out of the bigger headache of periodically jumping through hoops to maintain your legal work visa status, with most of them limited by a fixed number of renewals, per costs, and endless time-sensitive requirements.
While citizenship is the ultimate goal, for many, the GC does serve the practical purpose of allowing a permanent stay without having to give up on your parent citizenship for the new one. A greener pasture with a rooted status with your country of origin, if you will.
Good luck on your journey.
Here are some relevant links for your overseas settlement ride.
- F1 Visa requirements for Indian students
- How to get a student visa for USA: Requirements and step-by-step process
- F1 to H1B Visa Process: Procedure, stages, time, fees
- O1 visa, a possible substitute for H1B
- Best ways H4 dependent visa holders can work in the USA