Over on FindLaw Answers, we get a lot of questions about marriage, immigration, and legal status. To help you get started on the spousal immigration process, here's a quick primer on how to go about changing a spouse's legal status.
The United States' immigration system is family-based, which means that a person who marries a U.S. citizen is given priority when filing for a permanent residency. This, however, is not absolute, so it's important to pay attention to dates and filing requirements so as not to be denied entry or get deported.
Whether the spouse of the U.S. citizen is already legally within the country or currently lives abroad is the first consideration. If a spouse is in the U.S. on a visitor's visa, or even a work visa, then he or she will have to apply for a change in status. To do this, the citizen would have to file an I-130 form, and the spouse would have to file an I-485 form. The forms and accompanying documentation would be mailed to the address provided.
If the spouse is currently abroad, then the citizen would have to file an I-130. When processed, the local consulate should contact the spouse to finish the application for an immigrant visa.
Keep in mind that there are some conditions to being granted permanent residency. As for the length of the marriage, immigration law requires that the parties be married for at least two years. If you have been married for less than two years, the immigrant spouse will only be granted conditional permanent residency. You will have to file for a removal of that condition at least 90 days prior to the 2 year anniversary of being awarded conditional resident status. Failing to do so can result in deportation.
Whether you're the spouse of a U.S. citizen, or a U.S. citizen wanting to bring your spouse into the country, it's clear that acquiring or changing legal status is going to be a lot of work. It requires a lot of documentation, an understanding of which forms to file, and mastering deadlines. Most people who go through this process hire an immigration attorney to do this for them, as it can become very complicated, very fast.
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