An Introduction to U.S. Immigration Law, Part 2:
The “Green Card” and the Difference between Immigrant & Nonimmigrant Status

This is the second part in our series: An Introduction to U.S. Immigration Law. In Part 1, we talked about the important distinction between a person’s immigration status and their visa. Today, we’re going to talk about another major theme of U.S. immigration law: green cards and the distinction between immigrant and nonimmigrant status.

The “Green Card” and the Difference between Immigrant & Nonimmigrant Status

Fairly often, our office will receive a request from a potential client to help obtain a “green card,” “work visa,” “work papers” or sometimes just “immigration papers.” In many cases, these terms are all used interchangeably and this creates some confusion. Before we can provide any advice, it is important to get a better idea of what the person is actually seeking to do.

Immigration Status is generally divided into two separate categories: Non-Immigrant and Immigrant status.

Immigrant Status

Legal Permanent Residents (or sometimes just permanent residents), LPRs, or “green-card holders.”

People with immigrant status are also known as Legal Permanent Residents (or sometimes just permanent residents), LPRs, or “green-card holders.”

There are two primary pathways to LPR status. The first is to apply to a U.S. consulate abroad for an immigrant visa. (There are several categories of immigrant visas and we will discuss these categories in more detail later in this series.) If your immigrant visa is approved bythe U.S. consulate, you can travel to the United States and, if admitted, you will immediately become a permanent resident. Alternatively, if you are already in the United States, you may be able to obtain LPR status through a process called Adjustment of Status. The application for adjustment of status can be approved by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) from within the United States—without the need for a visa.

Once you have obtained LPR status, the U.S. government will issue a green identification card to document your permanent residence. This green identification card is the reason that Legal Permanent Residents are often referred to as “green card” holders.

As the formal name indicates, “Legal Permanent Resident” status is permanent and does not expire. However, sometimes this can be confusing because even though your status is permanent and does not expire, your identification card likely has an expiration date and will need to be renewed every 10 years.

Finally, permanent residence also provides an opportunity to become a U.S. citizen through the naturalization process. A permanent resident who is otherwise eligible for naturalization and has been continuously present in the United States for 5 years (3 years if married to a U.S. citizen) can to apply to become a U.S. Citizen. Eligibility for naturalization may be affected by a number of issues including any past criminal activity, lengthy absences from the United States, or other issues. Before applying for naturalization, you should consult a qualified immigration lawyer.

Non-Immigrant Status

Sometimes when a person says they are looking for a “green card,” what they are really seeking is authorization to work or otherwise remain in the United States. In many of these cases, a non-immigrant status may satisfy that person’s immediate needs. Even when a person may eventually want to become a permanent resident, obtaining non-immigrant status can be a can be a helpful step in that process.

Non-Immigrant Visa Cards in The USU.S. immigration law provides for a large number of non-immigrant visas (and corresponding categories of non-immigrant status). Later in this series, we will talk a little bit more about some of these specific visas and categories, but for now it is important to note that not all of these statuses are created equal. In some cases, non-immigrant status includes authorization to work in the United States; in other cases, working in the United States is a violation of a person’s legal status. In some cases, a person’s non-immigrant status can be renewed indefinitely; in other cases, it can only be renewed one or two times.

One key characteristic of all non-immigrant visas is that they are temporary. This is important in understanding another important legal concept: immigrant intent. Generally, to qualify for a non-immigrant visa or status, an applicant must show that he or she does not have immigrant intent. (This is done by attesting and sometimes by providing additional evidence that these applicants can and will eventually return to their home country and that they do not intend to remain in the United States forever.) If a consular official reviewing a visa petition believes that the applicant has immigrant intent, the visa will be denied. Similarly, a person who seeks to enter the United States with a non-immigrant visa may be denied entry if the border official believes that the person has immigrant intent.

For those who may be seeking a non-immigrant visa as a step in the process towards obtaining permanent residency or citizenship, it can be important to seek a visa and/or legal status that allows for “dual intent.” Dual intent is a legal concept that allows a foreign national to enter and remain in the United States in a non-immigrant category, even when they have expressed intent to eventually obtain permanent residence at a future time. Some visa programs expressly allow for dual intent, while others do not.

If you have specific questions or concerns about the differences between immigrant and nonimmigrant visas, or about other aspects of the immigration process, please contact the immigration attorneys at the Gunderson Law Group, P.C. in Mesa, Arizona. We serve clients in Mesa, Phoenix, Tempe, Chandler, Gilbert, Scottsdale, as well as clients throughout the state of Arizona and throughout the world.


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Gunderson Law Group, P.C.

Arizona Location
1400 E Southern Ave Suite 850
Tempe, AZ 85282

Office: (480) 750-7337

Nevada Location
3960 Howard Hughes Parkway #500-A
Las Vegas, NV 89169

Office: (702) 990-3515