What Is the Legal Process For Sponsoring a Family Member's Immigration?

by Leigh A. Morgan
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Reviewed by Carina Jenkins, J.D.

The United States offers several types of visas to foreign citizens. Nonimmigrant visas are for people who plan to stay in the country temporarily, while immigrant visas are for those who intend to establish permanent residence in the United States. Immigrant visas are issued based on employment status, family relationships and other categories.

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In most cases, a foreign citizen who wants to obtain a U.S. visa must have a sponsor. Here’s what sponsors need to know.

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Can You Sponsor a Family Member’s Immigration to the United States?

Yes. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services allows U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents to sponsor family members. If you want to sponsor one of your relatives, you must submit Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative.

What Are the Requirements?

UCIS has strict requirements for U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents who want to sponsor their family members. One of the most basic requirements is that the person you sponsor must be a member of your immediate family.

If you’re a U.S. citizen, you may sponsor the following people:

  • Your spouse
  • Your mother or father (if you’re at least 21 years old)
  • Your sibling (if you’re at least 21 years old)
  • Your married or unmarried children of any age

If you’re a lawful permanent resident, you may only sponsor your spouse or your unmarried children.

UCIS issues immediate relative visas and family preference visas. The immediate relative visa is for U.S. citizens who want to sponsor their spouses, children and parents. There’s no limit to the number of immediate relative visas issued each year.

Family preference visas are available to both U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents. If you’re a U.S. citizen, you may be able to sponsor your married child, sibling or unmarried child under the age of 21 for this type of visa. Lawful permanent residents are only allowed to sponsor their spouses and unmarried children. UCIS issues a limited number of family preference visas annually.

Financial Sponsorship

When submitting the I-130 petition, you must agree to serve as your family member’s financial sponsor. This means you agree to be financially responsible for your loved one. The purpose of requiring a financial sponsor is to prevent immigrants from participating in means-tested benefit programs. A means-tested benefit is any benefit issued based on your financial resources, such as income and assets.

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What Does the Process Look Like?

The process of sponsoring an immigrant is somewhat complex, but these are the main steps:

1. Create a UCIS online account. You’re allowed to file paper forms, but it's much easier to file online.

2. Complete Form I-130 and submit it. This petition establishes a relationship between you and the person you want to sponsor. Be sure to submit all required information with the I-130. If your relative has already entered the United States legally, they may be able to file Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status, at the same time.

3. UCIS will confirm receipt of the completed petition.

4. If the petition is approved, UCIS will send it to the National Visa Center (NVC). Note that it may take several years for the agency to process your petition. The exact wait time depends on the type of visa needed, the number of people applying for visas at any given time and which service center is handling your petition. You can check current wait times on the UCIS website.

5. When your relative reaches the front of the line, UCIS will invite them and any of their qualifying dependents to apply for visas.

6. Once your relative has an immigrant visa interview scheduled, you must complete Form I-864, Affidavit of Support Under Section 213A of the INA. The I-864 helps demonstrate that your relative has adequate financial support in the United States. You must prove that your income is at least 125% of the Federal Poverty Level (100% if you're an active-duty service member sponsoring a spouse or child). If you don't meet this requirement, another person needs to serve as a joint sponsor.

Do You Need an Immigration Lawyer?

You aren't required to hire a lawyer before you complete the I-130 petition. However, visa sponsorship has many requirements. Some people find the process a bit overwhelming when they try to do it on their own. Errors can cause immigration officials to deny the visa, and there could be long-term consequences for your family member. Therefore, it may benefit your family to consult an attorney before you complete the I-130 petition.

A licensed attorney can walk you through the I-130 and I-864 forms, making it easier to complete them. If you have any questions about UCIS requirements, you can ask the attorney and get an accurate answer. Your attorney may even be able to help you avoid mistakes that could cause your I-130 to be rejected or returned for corrections.

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