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How Immigration Works


How People Immigrate
A passport is an essential document for identifying yourself at a port-of-entry. Your visa will likely be pasted inside.
A passport is an essential document for identifying yourself at a port-of-entry. Your visa will likely be pasted inside.
Photo courtesy stock.xpert

­T­he first step in immigration, no matter your age, employment status or country of origin, is to apply for a visa. For citizens of some foreign countries, visas are required just to travel to the U.S for vacation. A student visa is another type of nonimmigrant visa. Other visas are granted to people who come to the U.S to work temporarily, and these visas are often easier to get for those who are prominent in certain fields -- athletes, artists, entertainers, professors or business leaders.

If someone wants to move to the U.S., he or she has to first fill out an application for an immigrant visa for permanent residence and submit it to a U.S. Consulate in the country of origin. Once the application has been submitted and any necessary fees paid, the applicant has an interview with a consular officer, who asks questions about the applicant’s background and his or her plans for immigrating to the U.S. This officer then makes the decision whether or not to grant a visa.

Having a visa doesn’t guarantee entry into the U.S. It allows the holder to travel to a port-of-entry (i.e. an airport or land border) where an immigration inspector decides whether or not to let the visa holder into the country.

The type of visa available to a potential immigrant depends on a variety of factors, including:

  • the country of origin
  • what the person will do after immigrating to the U.S.
  • whether or not the immigrant has family members “sponsoring” him or her

In the next few sections, we’ll look at some different types of immigrant visas. As with much of the immigration process, figuring out which type of visa is best for you can be a confusing process, so if possible, talk with an immigration attorney or another expert. We’ll also provide some links at the end of the article to some useful reference sites.

Family Connection

If you have a relative who is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, you can apply for one of the 480,000 visas available every year to immigrants seeking to join family members in the United States.

First, your relative must file an I-130 Petition for Alien Relative and provide proof of your relationship. The relative also has to prove by an Affidavit of Support that he or she can support you at 125 percent above the poverty line. The I-130 petition must then be approved by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS), and the relative will be notified when the petition is approved or denied.

If the petition is approved, the Department of State checks to see if an immigration visa number is available for you, the potential immigrant. If already inside the U.S., you can apply to have your status changed to lawful permanent resident after an immigrant visa number becomes available. If you’re outside the U.S. when a number becomes available, you must go to the U.S. consulate assigned to that area.

Obtaining one of the 480,000 visas available every year may one day lead to gaining U.S. citizenship.
Obtaining one of the 480,000 visas available every year may one day lead to gaining U.S. citizenship.
Photo courtesy USCIS

Sponsorship rules vary for U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents. A U.S. citizen can sponsor his or her spouse, child or, if the sponsor is at least 21, a sibling or parent. A lawful permanent resident can sponsor a spouse or unmarried son or daughter.

Provided they are at least 21, parents, spouses, and unmarried children of U.S. citizens don’t have to wait for an immigrant visa number after the USCIS approves the petition filed for them. According to the USCIS Web site, everyone else must wait for a visa number in this order:

  • First preference: Unmarried, adult (21 years or older) children of U.S. citizens
  • Second preference: Spouses of lawful permanent residents, their under-21 unmarried children, and unmarried children of lawful permanent residents
  • Third preference: married children of U.S. citizens
  • Fourth preference: siblings of adult U.S. citizens

Diversity Lottery Program

If you don’t have a relative living in the U.S., you may be able to qualify for the Diversity Lottery Program. This program hands out 55,000 visas each year to people emigrating from countries with low levels of immigration to the U.S. The State Department actually selects 110,000 people a year because many don’t complete the visa process. After 55,000 visas are issued or the fiscal year ends, the lottery is closed for that year. If you receive a visa this way, you can live and work permanently in the U.S. and bring your spouse and unmarried children who are under 21.

For information on which countries are eligible for the Diversity Lottery Program, check out the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs Web site. Some countries may be eligible one year and ineligible in another, so it’s important to stay up to date.

Lawful permanent residents are granted permanent resident cards, also known as green cards.
Lawful permanent residents are granted permanent resident cards, also known as green cards.

Immigration through Employment

Employers can sponsor potential employees in order to bring them to the U.S. First, the employer must submit a labor certification request to the Department of Labor. After the certification request is granted, the employer must file a Petition for Alien Worker, to be considered by the USCIS. If the petition is approved, the applicant can then get an immigrant visa number from the State Department. If the applicant is inside the U.S., he or she must apply to adjust to permanent resident status. If outside the U.S., he or she must go to a U.S. consulate to finish the process.

Like with family sponsors, foreign nationals applying for work visas are ranked in several categories - EB-1 Priority Workers, EB-2 Professionals with advanced degrees or persons with exceptional ability, EB-3 Skilled or professional workers and EB-4 Special Immigrants. The USCIS Web site has more information about these categories.

This world map has been modified to show net immigration throughout the world. Countries appearing larger than their normal size experience higher levels of immigration.
This world map has been modified to show net immigration throughout the world. Countries appearing larger than their normal size experience higher levels of immigration.

Immigration through Investment

Every year 10,000 investor visas are made available, 5,000 of them for people applying to a pilot program run through USCIS-designated “Regional Centers.” A Regional Center is an organization or agency, approved by the USCIS, that focuses on a geographical area and “seeks to promote economic growth through increased export sales, improved regional productivity, creation of new jobs, and increased domestic capital investment” [ref].

To get a visa through the program, an alien investor has to prove that he or she is making an investment in a commercial endeavor in an approved Regional Center and that 10 or more jobs will be created directly or indirectly by the project.

An investor can also get a visa by starting a business or by purchasing and restructuring an existing business so as to create a new commercial venture. Or, he or she can expand an existing business by 140 percent or retains all jobs in an existing business that was experiencing financial troubles. Other methods of qualification include investing $500,000 in a rural area or troubled business or $1,000,000 in some other venture.


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