United States citizens and lawful permanent residents can sponsor certain relatives for permanent residence in the United States. The relatives that have been designated as eligible for family-sponsored permanent residence are grouped into different classifications.
"Immediate relatives" of U.S. citizens are the spouses, parents, and unmarried children (under the age of 21) of U.S. citizens. Family-sponsored immigrant visas for relatives other than immediate relatives are subject to numerical limitations and are categorized as follows:
A cap applies to the number of family-sponsored immigrants that can be admitted annually to the United States. Immediate relatives of U.S. citizens are not subject to the numerical restrictions on visas that are applicable to relatives in the other family-based visa categories. In addition, limitations exist within each family-based category on the number of visas that are available to relatives from each foreign state. Consequently, visa backlogs exist for some of the preference categories.
The petitioning U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident who is married and wants to apply for an immigrant visa for his/her spouse must meet certain requirements and legal obligations. The petitioning spouse must demonstrate that he/she and the immigrating spouse (the beneficiary) have a bona fide marriage. In general, a marriage that was valid where performed is considered legal unless it violates public policy. Additionally, the petitioner must establish that the marriage was not entered into for the purpose of evading immigration laws. Therefore, it is possible that a marriage may not be recognized for immigration purposes despite being a legal marriage.
Marriage-based immigration has been subject to controversy due to the fact that the bona fides of a marriage relationship often cannot be objectively measured. A legal marriage is considered to be valid for immigration purposes if, at its inception, the couple intended to establish a life together and assume certain duties and obligations. If it is found that the sole intention to enter into a marriage was to secure the immigrating spouse's residency in the United States, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will consider the marriage to be fraudulent, or a "sham," and not valid for immigration purposes.
For more information about the types of visas available to spouses and fiancées of U.S. citizens, please see the "Fiancée and Spouse Visas" section.