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How to Immigrate to the U.S.
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U.S. immigration laws regulate entry, duration of stay, and removal of non-citizens. Immigration laws in the U.S. have been both restrictive and expansive for different people at different times. They provide a way for a small percentage of people to immigrate to the United States. Immigration laws change. Current proposed legislation in Congress could significantly reform our immigration laws.

There are four age-old reasons why people around the world migrate from one place to another:

  • to be reunited with family.
  • to seek a better financial situation.
  • to seek freedom and safety.
  • to follow their faith.

There are many different types of legal immigration statuses. These include lawful permanent residents, refugees, asylees, parolees, holders of Temporary Protected Status, visitors, students and others. Some people have statuses that allow them to live in the U.S. permanently (e.g. lawful permanent residents, refugees and asylees) while non-immigrants have statuses that allow them to be in the U.S. temporarily (e.g. visitors, students, temporary workers).

U.S. immigration laws are complex. About 1,000,000 people legally immigrate to the U.S. annually. Due to strict immigration categories, permanent legal status is not available to the majority of the world’s population. The process to gain a permanent legal status generally happens in two steps.

Step One: A person must fit into an existing immigration category. If a person does not fit into one of the existing categories, then that person may not enter or remain in the U.S. under its laws. There are four main categories through which people may gain a lawful permanent resident status in the U.S.:

  • through a close family member who is a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident. 
  • through an employer or special skill.
  • through a special lottery of extra visas.
  • through a special category for protected classes of people.

Step Two: The person must be eligible to acquire a legal status in the U.S. based on their own background. Even if someone does fit into one of the existing categories to obtain permanent status, there may still be reasons that the person may not be allowed to enter or stay in the United States. These reasons include: convictions for crimes; threats to national security; participation in persecution of others; the inability to show they can support themselves without receipt of government assistance; having falsely declared oneself to be a U.S. citizen; immigration violations; and being in the U.S. without permission for extended periods of time. The U.S. conducts thorough security checks on everyone seeking permanent admission to the United States.

There are two systems which allow for family members to immigrate to the United States.

First System: Immediate Relatives
Permanent resident visas are immediately available for spouses, unmarried children under 21 years of age, and the parents of United States citizens. This means that the United States citizen may sponsor these family members so that they may apply for lawful permanent resident status immediately upon approval of the petition. If the family member qualifies to acquire a legal status, then the family member will be allowed into the U.S., or allowed to stay if already in the U.S., as a lawful permanent resident. From start to finish the process may take one year or more. This process may or may not require that families be separated during the waiting period.

Second System: Preference System
The second system is based on quotas and limits the number of people allowed to immigrate annually based on family relationship and country of origin. Under this system, U.S. citizens may sponsor unmarried sons and daughters over 21 (1st Preference), married sons and daughters (3rd Preference), and siblings (4th Preference). In addition, lawful permanent residents may sponsor their spouses (2nd Preference) and unmarried children of any age (2nd Preference). The processing times for these visa categories range from 6 years to 23 years. Usually family members are separated during the lengthy waiting period. Some family members live out the waiting period in the U.S. without a legal status so that they may be close to their family. Individuals who sponsor family members are responsible for their financial support and sign a legally binding contract to that effect.

HOW CAN SOMEONE IMMIGRATE BASED ON EMPLOYMENT? Employers may sponsor workers permanently or temporarily depending upon the type of work and the U.S. labor market. There are only 140,000 visas available per year for persons who immigrate permanently. They must be people with exceptional abilities, skilled workers or professionals, religious workers or investors. To protect U.S. workers, generally the employer must prove that there are no qualified U.S. workers available for the position.

There are also temporary, or non-immigrant, employment visas. Typically, these visas are available to relieve temporary work shortages in skilled, semi-skilled or unskilled fields, including nurses, agricultural workers, temporary or seasonal workers, trainees and some professionals. Several categories exist, each granting a limited number of visas per year. Employers must show that they will not displace U.S. workers and will pay fair wages. Over the past several years, there have not been enough visas available to meet employers’ needs to fill job vacancies.

Immigration law provides up to 55,000 immigrant visas each year to give immigration opportunities for persons from countries with low immigration rates to the United States. Persons who apply for this visa must be from certain listed countries and must meet the basic minimum requirements to immigrate (see page 1). They must also meet strict eligibility requirements that include high school completion or its equivalent or two years of work experience within the past five years in an occupation requiring at least two years of training or experience to perform.

U.S. immigration laws also provide a legal means to be and remain in the U.S. either permanently or temporarily for people who need special protection. These laws protect: victims of persecution; abandoned and neglected children; victims of abuse by a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident; victims of certain crimes; victims of trafficking; victims of natural disasters, war and civil strife; and, people with special or long-term ties to the United States. There are strict eligibility requirements to receive protection based on these laws. Not everyone is eligible or will be approved for a permanent or temporary status under these laws.

Some people automatically are U.S. citizens because they inherited U.S. citizenship from a U.S. citizen parent or parents or because they were born within the U.S. or its territories. All others must first be a lawful permanent resident before they may apply to become a U.S. citizen. No one can apply to be a U.S. citizen without first being a lawful permanent resident. To qualify to apply for citizenship, lawful permanent residents must show that they have been permanent residents at least 5 years (in some cases 3 years) and that half of that time they have been physically in the U.S., they have not abandoned their residency or committed an act for which they could lose their permanent residency, they are persons of good moral character, they speak, read and write English and can pass a U.S. civics test, and that they will take an oath of loyalty to the U.S.

The above information is not meant as legal advice. Please see the official U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website at for more information about the law.