Consular Processing - Immigrant Visas (Greencards for family members outside the U.S.)
A Visa is a conditional authorization allowing a person to enter the United States. It is conditional because an immigration officer makes the ultimate decision whether to allow admission at the port of entry. An Immigrant visa is issued to a foreign national who intends to live in the United States permanently. Once a foreign national enters the U.S. on an immigrant visa, that person will be mailed a greencard. A greencard, or permanent resident card, is simply evidence of a person's lawful permanent residence. The foreign national becomes a permanent resident once the immigrant visa is presented at a U.S. port of entry with accompanying paperwork and it is reviewed and accepted by an immigration officer.
The first step in obtaining an Immigrant Visa for a family member is for the United States citizen or Lawful Permanent Resident family member (the Petitioner) to file a petition with USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services). You do this by filing Form, I-130, Petition for Alien Relative. You must submit the completed form, filing fee and accompanying evidence. The evidence required depends on your relationship to the foreign national relative and your particular situation. Once you submit the I-130 packet, USCIS will process the I-130 and either issue a request for evidence, issue a denial, issue a notice of intent to deny, or approve it. The I-130 is processed at one of several service centers. The processing time for the I-130 changes and is published here. Once the I-130 is approved, the foreign national can start consular processing if an immigrant visa is available. An immigrant visa will be immediately available for "immediate relatives" of U.S. citizens. That is, spouses of U.S. citizens, children under the age of 21 of U.S. citizens, and parents of U.S. citizen if the U.S. citizen is 21 or older. For all others, there may be a long waiting list until an immigrant visa is available for that family member. Non-immediate relatives of U.S. citizens and any eligible family member of lawful permanent residents are separated into different "preference categories." Each preference category is further broken up by region of the world. Each preference category and region of the world has a different waiting period. So, for example, the brother or sister of a U.S. citizen with a newly approved I-130 is going to have a 14-20 year wait, as of the date that this was written.
"Consular Processing" is the process of obtaining an immigrant visa at a United States Department of State Consulate located in a United States Embassy. It is the foreign national family member who applies at the consulate for the immigrant visa, but that family member cannot apply until the Petitioner's I-130 has been approved and the foreign national's visa number has become current (they have waited and made it to the front of the line).
Once the foreign national's visa number is about to become current, the National Visa Center (NVC) will send a letter to the Petitioner and the foreign national relative with instructions. The foreign national applies for an immigrant visa by filling out the DS-260 form, paying the fee, uploading documentation, and scheduling an appointment at a U.S. embassy. The foreign national relative will have an interview at the embassy with a consular officer who will determine whether the foreign national is admissible to the United States. If the immigrant visa is approved, the foreign national will be able to travel to the U.S. on that immigrant visa and will be inspected by an immigration officer. If the immigration officer allows the foreign national to be admitted, the foreign national relative will enter as a permanent resident and will be mailed their greencard in the mail within a few weeks.
Every case is unique and there is no way to give a one size fits all answer, but there are some common issues that come up in almost every immigrant visa case. For example, the foreign national relative must prove that he or she is not likely to become a public charge. That means, that he or she is not likely to go on public benefits like food stamps or medicaid. The government has really put a spotlight on this issue lately and has made applicants jump through many hoops to prove that they will not become a public charge. The Petitioner has to file an affidavit of support and show he or she makes enough money to support the foreign national family member. The consular officer will look at things like the applicant's ability to speak English, education level, ability to obtain health insurance, age, and more factors to determine whether to approve the immigrant visa. Another thing that the consular officer will look at is the applicant's social media and they will require social media passwords, so this can become an issue if the foreign national relative has posted information that is inconsistent with statements made on the application or with any other evidence. Criminal convictions can also be the basis for denial of an immigrant visa. Prior immigration violations, fraud, or false statements can present issues as well. It is always good to consult with an experienced immigration lawyer before starting the immigrant visa process to make sure there are no potential pitfalls in your case.