There are two ways to live in the U.S. permanently and legally:
- become a U.S. citizen (See Citizenship), or
- get a "green card."
The U.S. government allows you (a non-citizen) to live here permanently by giving you a "Permanent Residence" card. This used to be called the "Alien Registration Receipt" card. Most people call it the "green card." This card gives allows you to live and work in the U.S.
There are several ways to get a green card. Here are the most common ones:
- "family petition" (Someone who is already a U.S. citizen or permanent resident asks the U.S. to let an immediate relative immigrate to the U.S.)
- "refugee" or "asylum" status (You can apply for this if you believe that you cannot live safely in your own country.)
- employer petition (An employer asks the U.S. to give you a green card so that you can work for him.)
- "visa lottery" (You file a form with the U.S., applying for a yearly random lottery. If your name is picked, then you can apply for a green card.)
- "cancellation of removal" (If the U.S. is trying to deport you, you can try to get a green card. You must show that your relative who is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident would "suffer extraordinary and extremely unusual hardhsip" if you were to be deported.)
Note: You may be allowed to live legally in the U.S. temporarily without a
green card. Instead, you get a "temporary visa." These visas allow you to live in the U.S. as:
- a tourist,
- a student, or
- a temporary worker
Also, the U.S. may allow to you stay here temporarily if there is a crisis in your home country, such as an earthquake or a new civil war.
These are things you must do to keep your green card:
- If you are 18 or older, always carry your green card with you (in your wallet or your purse).
- If you move, you must give Immigration your new address within 10 days. Use form AR-11, or ask a lawyer or advocate to help you. Always send information to Immigration by "certified mail." (If you need help, ask the postal clerk to show you.) The post office will send you a card proving that Immigration got your mail. Also, keep a copy of everything you send to Immigration.
- If you are a male age 18 through 25, you must register for the Selective Service. This does not mean that you will have to do military service. Most of the time, U.S. military service is "voluntary." It does mean that the U.S. will know where to find you if they want to call you to see if you are fit for military service. You can register on the Web or at any U.S. Post Office. (Ask a postal clerk for the registration form.)
- If you work, you must pay taxes and file an "Income Tax Return." You must do this for each year that you earn more than the minimum amount. The U.S. does not require you to file a return if you earn small amounts. ( See Your Rights and Duties)
- Do not commit any crimes! A person can be deported, or refused reentry after travel abroad, even for “minor” crimes such as shoplifting. Domestic violence offenses can also lead to deportation even for violations of “protection orders” that may not be treated as crimes by the State. Even cases that were dismissed, vacated, or expunged can cause a person to be deported or refused entry into the U.S.
- If you travel abroad, it is best to return before you've been outside the U.S. for 180 days. Under the Immigration laws the U.S. may presume that you have given up your permanent residency if you are outside the U.S. for more than 180 days. If you stay outside the U.S. for a year or more, the U.S. must presume you have given up your residency. In either case, you can be refused reentry when you try to come back into the U.S. If you know that you will need to be outside the U.S. for as much as a year, either become a U.S. citizen first (if you are eligible) or apply to Immigration for a “Reentry Permit. ” Getting this Permit lets the U.S. know in advance that you expect you might have to be outside the U.S. for as much as two years and helps alert the government that you are not intending to abandon your U.S. residency. If you have ever had any problems with police, talk with an immigration advocate before applying for a Reentry Permit. Immigration will take your fingerprints as part of the application and will find out about any issues you’ve had with the police.
- Renew your green card before it expires. Check the expiration date on your card and keep track of that date. Because it can take Immigration several months to issue the new card, you should plan to file 90 days before your old card expires. If you have ever had any problems with police, check with an immigration advocate before you apply for a new card. You need to make sure that the police issue won’t cause you problems with Immigration. Immigration will take your fingerprints as part of the application and will find out about any police issues.
Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project
309 Cumberland Avenue, Suite 201
Portland, Maine 04112
207-780-1593 or 1-800-497-8505
Services are free or low-fee depending on income
Private Immigration Lawyers: See the "Immigration Law" listing under "Lawyers" in the Yellow Pages of the phone book.
Updated September 2008