Cite as "AILA InfoNet Doc. No. 98042140 (posted Apr. 21, 1998)"
April 21, 1998
A History of the "Green Card"
What is known today as a "Green Card" has come in a variety of different
formats and colors during its history. We still refer to all versions as Green Cards for
the same reason dismissal notices are called "pink slips." Yet the card’s purpose of
indicating a lawful permanent resident’s authorization to live and work in the United
States has remained constant.
Alien Registration Act of 1940
As a national defense measure, the Alien Registration Act of 1940 required for
the first time in the nation’s history that all aliens (non-U.S. citizens) within the United
States register with the federal government at post offices. Their registration forms
were forwarded to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) for processing,
after which a receipt card (Form AR-3) was mailed to each registrant as proof of
compliance with the law. The law did not discriminate between legal and illegal alien
residents. All aliens had to register, and all received AR-3s.
Post World War II -- The First Green Card
As World War II ended and large-scale immigration to the United States
resumed, alien registration ceased to take place at post offices and became part of
regular immigration procedures at ports of entry. INS, based on the alien’s admission
status, issued different documents to serve as Alien Registration Receipt Cards. For
example, visitors received an I-94c, temporary foreign laborers received an I-100a, and
legal permanent residents (LPRs) received an I-151. The small, green Form I-151 had
immediate value in identifying its holder as an alien who was entitled to live and work
indefinitely in the United States.
The Internal Security Act of 1950 -- The Value of the Green Card Increases
Following passage of the Internal Security Act of 1950, new regulations issued by
INS made the Alien Registration Receipt Card, Form I-151, even more valuable. Effective
April 17, 1951, aliens holding AR-3 cards could replace them with a new Form I-151
(Green Card). However, only those with legal status could replace their AR-3. Aliens
who could not prove their legal admission into the United States could not qualify for
LPR status and were subject to prosecution for violating U.S. immigration laws.
As a result, the Form I-151 card represented security to its holder. It indicated the
right to live and work in the United States permanently and instantly communicated
that right to law enforcement officials. Because of the card’s cumbersome official title -
Alien Registration Receipt Card - aliens, immigration attorneys, and enforcement
officers came to refer to it by its color, calling it the "Green Card."
Combating Document Fraud - The Green Card Changes Color
In the early 1950s, the status of being a Green Card holder became so desirable
that counterfeit Form I-151s became a serious problem. To combat document fraud, the
INS issued 17 different re-designs of the Form I-151 between 1952 and its complete
revision in 1977.
In 1964, the color of the Green Card was changed to pale blue. After 1964, it
became a dark blue. Regardless of color, the Form I-151 still carried with it the benefits
indicated by the term Green Card, and those who wanted, obtained, issued or
inspected it continued to refer to it by that name.
During the mid-1970s, INS studied methods to produce a more counterfeit-
resistant Green Card. The study resulted in centralized card production at the
Immigration Card Facility in Texas. This created standardization and accountability
lacking with local card production. In addition, new materials and technologies were
introduced to create a new machine-verifiable Green Card. The new Green Card, first
issued in 1977, also had a new form number, I-551.
The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA)
In 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act, for the first time, gave
employers legal incentives for verifying employment documents. However, the many
and varied versions of the Green Card made this task daunting. To simplify the
verification process for employers, as well as to further reduce the counterfeiting risk,
INS once again created a new card version in 1989.
To further combat document fraud, effective March 20, 1996, the old Form I-151
Green Cards issued prior to 1979, became obsolete. The Form I-551 Alien Registration
Receipt Card became the only valid Green Card.
Despite these efforts, the anti-fraud technology utilized for the 1989 card version
was quickly matched by counterfeiting technology, forcing INS to develop a more
secure "Green Card."
Integrated Card Production System -- The Green Card Becomes Green Again
To thwart counterfeiters, INS switched to the high-tech Integrated Card
Production System (ICPS). Today’s ICPS cards mark a significant achievement in the
history of Green Card production. Although the card form number remains the same,
Form I-551, the new card now contains many state-of-the-art security features that can
be expanded, as necessary, to keep one step ahead of counterfeiters. The card also
features a name change from "Alien Registration Receipt Card" to "Permanent Resident
One of the most secure documents in the federal government, the new Green
Card can easily incorporate future technology to maintain its resistance to
counterfeiting. As older versions of the Green Cards are taken out of circulation as they
expire, the new card will gradually become the only valid Form I-551 in circulation.
- INS -
Prepared by the Office of Public Affairs (202) 514-2648