Interested in immigrating to the U.S.?  If you are an educated person, this is eminently possible, but requires strategy and long-term planning.  This article summarizes the journey a foreign student studying in the United States will typically take to ultimately obtain a green card.

Studying in the United States

If you don’t have a university degree but have thought about getting one, or you are contemplating what a master’s degree could do for your career, you may want to consider applying to colleges or universities in the United States.  It’s not inexpensive for foreign students (nor for Americans these days), but it may be worth making an investment in yourself and your future and taking out a loan to pay for your education.

If you are accepted to a fulltime U.S. university or college program, the next step is to apply for an F-1 visa through the U.S. Consulate in your home country.  You complete a DS-160, pay the application fee, and take your I-20 form provided by the college to a U.S. Consulate in your home country.  Once it is approved, you may enter the U.S. and will be given a time limit of D/S (Duration of Status) to remain in the U.S.  This means that as long as you remain in good status as a fulltime student at a college/university in the U.S., you may stay in the U.S.  

One of the nice features of the F-1 status is that as a student, you may qualify for employment authorization.  There are two designated types of off-campus employment authorization for F-1 students: Curricular Practical Training (CPT) and Optional Practical Training (OPT).  Immigration law relating to students is highly regulated, and this article isn’t the place to go into all of the rules, but suffice it to say that paid employment under Curricular Practical Training is permissible before the end of the F-1 degree program as long as the training is an integral part of your student curriculum and relates directly to your major area of study.  

After you graduate from your college program (which must be of one year or more), you qualify for Optional Practical Training status for a full year.  You may work for your Curricular Practical Training employer or a different employer.  It is much easier to find jobs under Optional Practical Training than it is under a different type of work visa, since the employer doesn’t have to file any sponsorship paperwork or pay application fees for you. The Optional Practical Training will only last one year, and cannot be extended unless you majored in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) field.  If you did, the Optional Practical Training may be extended for an additional 24-month period.  Entry level STEM jobs and particularly internships may not be that difficult to find in the United States.  Tech fields continue to boom in many parts of the U.S. and right now unemployment is very low, so employers are hiring!

H-1B Visa

If you are successful in finding employment, as many are, you may begin working on Optional Practical Training status after your college program ends – usually in May or June.  You will continue working as an Optional Practical Training employee until the following April, at which point your employer, or another employer, may file an H-1B on your behalf.  Many more employers will be willing to file an H-1B petition after getting to know you well and seeing the value in having you as an employee.  Additionally, if you secure a full-time job offer before graduating, the employer may file an H-1B petition for you in the April before graduation if the petition is accompanied by a letter from your university stating that you have met all the requirements for the degree, and the degree will be issued in May or June.

Although H-1B’s are in short supply for people with only a bachelor level degree, there is still slightly over a 30% chance of getting one.  Of course, graduates of master’s degree programs in the United States have a greater chance of success (approximately 50%), and students who have graduated in a STEM field get several chances to have their petition drawn in the H-1B lottery while still working for the same or a different employer under Optional Practical Training.   An H-1B worker is eligible for up to six years in total on H-1B status, in three-year increments.

Employment Based Green Card and PERM

During the six-year period your H-1B is valid, your employer can begin the process of sponsoring you for a green card through process called PERM.  The PERM green card process can take between one and two years depending on processing times and the speed with which you, your employer, and your immigration lawyer move through the various required steps.  Employers filing these cases are applying under either the EB-2 or EB-3 categories.

Initially, your employer will file for a prevailing wage determination with the Department of Labor. During processing, the DOL determines the appropriate wage level and occupational classification for you based on your reported job duties.  Once the determination is received, your employer will begin advertising for the position.  The Department of Labor rules stipulate mandatory and optional recruitment steps that must be taken by your employer to test the labor market to see whether there may be another U.S. worker willing and able to do the specific job your employer would like to offer you on a permanent basis.  If other qualified workers come forward through recruitment, the Department of Labor will likely not certify your PERM case.  If no qualified workers are found, however, the Department of Labor will certify your PERM application.

After the PERM is certified, your employer will file the I-140 petition (Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker) on behalf of you as the employee.  This petition is the only one during the entire EB-2 or EB-3 process that can be expedited by filing a premium processing petition with it (the I-907), and paying an additional $1,410 (as of this writing).  When accompanied by a certified PERM and provided your employer has established that it has the ability to pay your wages, the I-140 is generally approved.  

Adjustment of Status

The next step for you – assuming you have stayed in good status in the United States — is to file the Adjustment of Status petition, along with applications for Advance Parole and Employment Authorization.  Adjustment of Status to become a permanent resident is currently taking between one and two years for employment-based cases.  During the Adjustment of Status process all of your personal information comes into play: your previous residences, employment history, information relating to your spouse, children, etc.  This is the first time during the process that your, as a foreign national, actually becomes the applicant and files your own petitions with the approved I-140 as the key supporting document.  

Approximately six months after filing the Adjustment of Status petition and after attending a USCIS appointment to have your biometrics taken, your Employment Authorization Document will be issued.  This card will allow you to work anywhere in the U.S. while the Adjustment of Status petition is pending.  

Conclusion

It may take a while and require persistence, but there can be a clear path for you to become a permanent resident after first entering the U.S. with nothing more than a student visa. This is particularly true for applicants in the STEM fields, as they have several chances to obtain an H-1B.  

Please feel free to book a FREE CONSULTATION with me at my website GETAUSVISA.COM if you’d like to explore more deeply your path from student to green card holder!