Understanding Common Misconceptions about Lawful Permanent Residency
Receiving a green card is a major accomplishment and significant step in any immigrant’s journey in the United States. A green card confers lawful permanent residency, which allows you to live and work in the country. You will also enjoy a select number of protections and freedoms not granted to immigrants with other types of visas. Lawful permanent residents also have the ability to eventually pursue full U.S. citizenship through the naturalization process.
A significant number of misconceptions surround the institution of green cards, including misunderstandings of the benefits they guarantee and protections they offer. Some of these myths can lead to lawful permanent residents making avoidable mistakes that can endanger their status. Below, we review and debunk the top 8 myths about green cards.
Myth #1: There Is Only One Way To Obtain a Green Card
Perhaps the most commonly understood method of obtaining a green card is through marriage to an existing United States citizen. While this avenue is a popular means of procuring a green card, it is by no means the only way of doing so. There are several other techniques in which can attain lawful permanent residency, including those that do not involve marriage at all.
An immigrant can obtain a green card by:
- Marriage to an existing United States citizen
- Marriage to a United States lawful permanent resident
- Sponsorship of a qualifying employer
- Sponsorship of a qualifying family member
There are also several extenuating circumstances in which you could become eligible for a green card. Asylees and refugees can apply for green cards after a certain amount of time has elapsed, for example, as can “special immigrants” working in specific occupations like religious vocations or qualifying international broadcasters. Human trafficking, crime, and/or abuse victims can also sometimes be eligible.
Myth #2: You Can Quickly Get a Green Card
Some unfortunately have unrealistic ideas about the efficiency in which one can procure a green card. The reality is that United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) receives and processes hundreds of thousands of applications per year, and some categories of green cards have caps. This means that many lawful permanent resident applicants incur a waiting period before a green card is available to them.
The speed in which you can receive a green card depends to a certain extent on the means in which you are qualifying for one. Marriage green cards stemming from U.S. spouses are generally issued faster than those with U.S. lawful permanent residents, for example. Employment-based green cards operate on preference categories, with those in the higher categories getting first priority.
Family-based green cards are divided into two broader categories, one of which is far more efficient than the other. Immediate relatives, which include spouses of U.S. citizens, unmarried children under 21 years of age of U.S. citizens, and parents of U.S. citizens, have no maximum cap and are more readily processed. Family preference relatives, which include spouses of lawful permanent residents, minor children of lawful permanent residents, and siblings of U.S. citizens, are capped annually and are often subject to unavoidable waiting periods.
Processing times will also fluctuate with USCIS staffing availability, the number of applications it receives at any given time, and outside factors. Closures of offices as a result of COVID-19, for example, slowed processing speeds. Layoffs or furloughs of USCIS staff can also lead to significant slowdowns.
Even the most efficient methods of obtaining a green card, including ones without preference categories or caps, typically take several months for USCIS to process. You should never trust any guarantee that you will receive a green card by a certain date, as the process can often be semi-unpredictable.
Myth #3: You Can Immediately Pursue U.S. Citizenship Once You Receive a Green Card
For many, green cards are a means to an end. Only lawful permanent residents can apply for naturalization, the formal process by which you can become a United States citizen. Many hope to begin this process as soon as possible, and some mistakenly believe you can do so as soon as your lawful permanent residency status is granted.
Green card holders will first have to go through a mandatory waiting period before they can apply for U.S. citizenship. The length of time they will have to wait depends on the method in which they procured the green card.
Those that obtained a green card through marriage to an existing United States citizen will need to wait at least 3 years before applying to become a citizen themselves. Those that received a green card through family-based or employment-based immigration will need to wait 5 years. Spouses of other lawful permanent residents will also need to wait 5 years. There are a handful of exceptions: Political refugees, for example, often only need to wait 4 years. During this waiting period, regardless of its length, lawful permanent residents must also meet certain other requirements, which we will touch on more below.
Myth #4: You Do Not Need to Live in the United States During Your Waiting Period
This dangerous assumption can get a lawful permanent resident into serious trouble, including the jeopardization of their status. Green cards are intended for immigrants who seek to permanently live and work in the United States. Those that do not exercise that right run the risk of losing it.
Green card holders are expected to maintain continuous and physical presence in the United States. In fact, meeting the prescribed conditions will be essential if you plan to apply for naturalization at the end of your mandatory waiting period.
Continuous presence refers to the idea that you maintain your primary residence in the United States. This will likely consist of the physical address you have on file with USCIS. If you instead attempt to maintain a primary address somewhere abroad, including in your home country, you could risk your continued lawful permanent residency in the United States. This is not to say you cannot travel to other countries: Green card holders are permitted to travel abroad for individual periods of up to 6 months. Any single travel period that exceeds 6 months will be considered a disruption of continuous presence, which you will have to maintain for the entirety of your mandatory waiting period in order to pursue naturalization.
Physical presence is defined as the amount of time that you are physically within the borders of the United States. Every day you spend inside the country counts toward your physical presence total, which must amount to at least half of your mandatory waiting period. For those with a 5-year waiting period, for example, you will need to spend at least 2.5 cumulative years – or 30 months – physically inside the United States, regardless of how many acceptable trips abroad you have taken.
Failure to follow physical and continuous presence rules will render you unable to pursue citizenship and also potentially endanger your current status. There are certain exceptions to these rules, including scenarios involving the U.S. military. You may be forgiven for failing to meet certain continuous and physical presence requirements if there were extraordinary circumstances beyond your control, such as the closure of borders or a personal health emergency.
Myth #5: You Can Be Forced To Surrender Your Green Card at a Border Access Point
A lawful permanent resident is typically required to have their physical green card on them at all times and must present it when requested. A terrifying scenario can occur when a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agent demands the surrendering of their green card after returning from a legally acceptable trip abroad.
A CBP agent might demand that you hand over your green card for any number of reasons, but regardless of what they say, you are not actually required to surrender it. If a CBP agent is challenging your immigration status, you have a right to a hearing to resolve the problem and do not have to surrender your green card in the meantime. In this situation, you should immediately and repeatedly ask to speak to an immigration attorney.
What will often happen is a CBP agent will isolate you at the access point and explain you must undergo secondary inspection, which involves the surrendering of the green card. Under no circumstances should you comply with this request, as doing so can result in your being detained and even constitute the “abandonment” of your green card. Some unscrupulous agents may attempt to trick you into signing forms as part of the secondary screening process. Do not hand over your green card or sign anything if stopped by CBP agents. Always speak to an immigration lawyer first. Otherwise, you are likely to be detained and could lose your status and the protections it confers.
Myth #6: Green Cards Never Expire
Confusion surrounding this point can be understandable: After all, it is called lawful permanent residency, so it is fair that some might assume it is indeed permanent. While green cards can typically be renewed in perpetuity (so long as qualifying conditions are met), they do have expiration dates and must be regularly renewed.
The validity period of a green card depends on how the green card was obtained. If you receive a green through a marriage that is younger than 2 years, your green card will be “conditional” and a validity period of 2 years. All other methods of getting a green card, including marriage-based green cards for marriages of greater than 2 years, are considered “permanent” green cards with 10-year validity periods.
“Removing conditions” from a conditional marriage-based green card is a fairly exhaustive process that has grown more protracted in recent years. USCIS is seeking to identify “marriage fraud,” so you will have to prove that your marriage has continued and grown within the 2-year period of your conditional green card. Should you satisfy their scrutiny, conditions will be “removed,” and you will receive a traditional 10-year green card. Luckily, if you are interested in naturalization, time spent during your conditional green card counts toward your mandatory waiting period.
For everyone else, renewing a 10-year green card is a relatively straightforward and easy process, though it does come with the requirement of paying USCIS fees. Should your green card expire, including failing to properly remove conditions on a conditional green card, you will no longer have valid status in the country and could be subject to removal proceedings. Many choose to pursue U.S. citizenship in lieu of renewing their green card again and again.
Myth #7: Green Card Holders Cannot Be Deported
This is another big mistake that can get lawful permanent residents in trouble. Green cards do confer removal protections so long as you meet the conditions of your green card. Should you fail to meet one of those eligibility requirements, you can absolutely be targeted for deportation.
A green card holder can potentially be deported due to committing a number of offenses, including:
- Committing a crime. USCIS maintains a list of “deportable offenses,” some of which preclude an offender from reentering the United States in the future. These include aggravated felonies, crimes of moral turpitude, and crimes involving controlled substances.
- Voting in a United States election. Only U.S. citizens can vote in the country’s elections. Lawful permanent residents who vote or attempt to vote in an election at any level could be targeted for deportation.
- Failure to maintain physical and continuous presence. As we mentioned above, you must spend a certain amount of time physically present in the U.S. and not take trips abroad for periods greater than 6 months. If USCIS suspects you have violated these requirements, they may request proof that you are in compliance. Should you be unable to do so, you may become the subject of removal proceedings.
- Failure to report an address change. While you are allowed to live and work anywhere in the United States, you are required to report any address change to USCIS. Not doing so can result in deportation efforts.
- Discovery of fraud during your immigration process. It is a crime to lie to USCIS at any point during the application process for your green card. Should USCIS learn that you lied or misrepresented any of your application, even after your green card has been issued, you can be detained and subject to removal proceedings.
Myth #8: Green Card Holders Have the Same Rights as U.S. Citizens
Green cards provide lawful permanent residents with a significant number of rights, including the right to live and work anywhere in the United States on a semi-permanent basis. However, they in no way have the same rights and protections as U.S. citizens, which is why many green card holders choose to pursue naturalization as soon as they are able to do so.
Lawful permanent residents cannot do any of the following:
- Vote in United States elections
- Run for public office
- Apply for federal government jobs
- Freely travel abroad for unlimited periods
- Sponsor family members for green cards
In addition, as we covered above, lawful permanent residents can in many circumstances face deportation. Naturalized U.S. citizens cannot be deported. For many, this is reason enough to seek citizenship.
We Answer Your Green Card Questions
The United States immigration system can be labyrinthine and overwhelming. At Gambacorta Law, we want to help simplify the process as much as possible. Our immigration attorneys can work with you to identify your immigration goals, explore legal solutions, and help you navigate each step. We have a complete working knowledge of marriage-based, family-based, and employment-based green cards and can determine what strategy is likely to get you lawful permanent residency as efficiently as possible. Our team can also help if you already have a green card and have questions or concerns about your rights.
Schedule a consultation to learn more about how we can help you overcome green card challenges. Call (847) 443-9303 or contact us online today.