The U.S. Immigration Process is highly regulated. Individuals can obtain a green card or permanent immigrant visa through family-based, employment-based, refugee, and asylum categories. Most people who become residents do so through a petition filed on their behalf by a family member or employer. Others gain refugee or asylum status after a thorough vetting process.
The United States has long been a destination for individuals seeking new opportunities and a fresh start. Understanding the U.S. immigration process is crucial for those who aspire to live and work in the country legally. This step-by-step guide will take you through the key stages of the U.S. immigration journey, providing you with valuable insights and information.
Introduction to the U.S. Immigration Process
People from around the world seek to come to America for a variety of reasons. Our legal immigration system divides new arrivals into two broad categories: immigrants and nonimmigrants. The former are granted permission to permanently reside here (a green card) while the latter enter for a limited time for a specific purpose (a visa).
Most immigrants obtain their green cards through family relationships or employment-based pathways. Roughly two-thirds of all permanent immigrants arrive through family reunification, while the remainder are split between those who possess sought-after skills or those chosen in the diversity visa lottery.
The majority of employment-based immigrant visas are reserved for individuals with extraordinary ability, academic researchers, or investments. However, the number of employment-based green cards available each year is limited by annual caps.
As a result, many prospective immigrants face lengthy wait times, especially for those from certain countries. The Biden administration has recently taken steps to boost refugee admissions, preserve deportation relief for unauthorized immigrants, and ease the impact of these limitations. However, there is still much work to do.
Determining Your Eligibility for U.S. Immigration Process
Our system allows people to immigrate to the United States based on family, employment, or humanitarian reasons. A person who is admitted through the family route does so because of a petition filed by a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident who is willing to sponsor that person and his or her family members.
A person who is admitted through the employment route gets a green card (officially known as lawful permanent resident status) by being offered a job with an American employer that pays a certain minimum salary or demonstrating that he or she has specialized skills and training that are in high demand in the labor market. There are also “preference” categories for academic researchers; executives and managers of multinational companies; and unskilled workers.
Some people are granted humanitarian relief in the form of asylum or refugee status, which allows them to live and work in the United States permanently. Once they have been in this status for three or five years, they can apply to become naturalized citizens. For this process, USCIS officers will carefully review the applicant’s history to make sure he or she is of good moral character.
Choosing the Right Visa Category
The immigration system divides new arrivals into two major categories: immigrants and nonimmigrants. Those granted immigrant status are allowed to permanently reside in the United States. They may work without restriction and eventually apply for U.S citizenship.
Most employment-based green cards require an employer to sponsor the visa application. This requires an offer of a job and proving with Department of Labor certification that your specific skill set cannot be easily met in the United States or that you are not taking a job away from a qualified U.S citizen or permanent resident worker.
Almost all legal immigration to the United States is determined by law, most notably the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). There are several federal agencies that implement the INA, including U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Family ties, employer sponsorship or winning the green-card lottery are the top avenues for people seeking temporary or permanent residence in the United States. The rest come from a wide array of visa categories, all of which have different requirements and annual caps.
Gathering Required Documents for U.S. Immigration Process
Becoming a U.S. citizen or permanent resident involves navigating through a complex field of immigration laws, with various pathways available. Most people obtain their Green Cards (officially known as immigrant visas) through family-based or employment-based categories. People who want to work in the United States can obtain temporary visas that allow them to travel and stay for several years. Those who wish to become citizens must remain in legal status for three to five years and meet certain requirements, including paying taxes and learning about American history and society.
People who are fleeing persecution in their home countries can seek asylum or refugee status. There are also other avenues for becoming permanent residents based on humanitarian reasons and the diversity visa program. Family-based and employment-based Green Card applications take from 10 to 38 months to process. You can speed up the processing time if you apply for premium processing. State governments can play a role in immigration through public benefits, driver’s licenses, and law enforcement. Some jurisdictions, known as sanctuary cities, limit their cooperation with federal immigration enforcement agencies..
Navigating the Application and Interview Process
The most common pathway to Green Card status is a family-based petition. These visas allow people to become permanent residents through relationships with their spouses, parents, children or siblings who are U.S. citizens or Green Card holders. As with all Green Cards, these immigrants can work and live freely in America, and they can eventually apply to become U.S. citizens.
Other Green Card pathways include employment-based, diversity lottery and humanitarian-based visas. The former includes visas like H-1B (for high-skilled workers), O-1A (for extraordinary abilities) and EB-5 (for investors who create jobs in America).
The latter includes refugee/repertoire and asylum Green Cards, T visas for survivors of human trafficking and domestic violence, and U visas for individuals who have helped the government fight terrorist activities or assisted with military service overseas.
Each of these categories has specific requirements, including medical exams and affidavits from sponsors who can pledge to support the applicant. USCIS also conducts a background check using biometrics—photographs and fingerprints—to ensure that the individual poses no threat to the public. Once the background check is complete, USCIS schedules an appointment to take these biometrics or interviews the foreign national at a local immigration office or consulate abroad.
Q1: How do I know if I’m eligible to immigrate to the U.S.?
A: Eligibility depends on various factors, including your relationship with U.S. citizens or residents, job prospects, skills, and more. It’s best to consult the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) or an immigration attorney to assess your eligibility.
Q2: Can I apply for multiple visa categories simultaneously?
A: Yes, you can explore multiple immigration pathways simultaneously if you meet the eligibility criteria for each category. However, it’s essential to prioritize the most suitable option for your circumstances.
Q3: How long does the U.S. immigration process usually take?
A: The processing time varies significantly depending on the visa category and other factors. Some visas may have shorter processing times, while others can take several years.
Q4: Do I need an attorney to navigate the U.S. immigration process?
A: While hiring an attorney is not mandatory, it can be highly beneficial, especially for complex cases. An experienced immigration attorney can provide guidance, help with paperwork, and ensure you meet all requirements.
Q5: What happens if my visa application is denied?
A: If your visa application is denied, the U.S. embassy or consulate will provide a written explanation for the denial. You may have the option to appeal the decision or reapply after addressing the issues that led to the denial.
Q6: Can I work in the U.S. while waiting for my visa application to be processed?
A: It depends on the visa category. Some visas, such as H-1B for skilled workers, allow for concurrent employment authorization. Others may require you to wait for visa approval before working in the U.S.