How the immigration system works in the United States

07 Dec 2021 - Category: Blog /
immigration usa

Are you hoping to move to the land of opportunity? Do you want to pursue the American Dream? If so, you’ll need to know how the immigration system works in the United States.

For many years immigrants from all over the world have been arriving in the United States to begin a new life. Before you set off and once you arrive there is plenty of paperwork to fill out and quite a few administrative tasks you’ll need to complete.

The U.S. processes hundreds of thousands of immigrants every year and the process will vary depending on your personal and professional circumstances.

In this post we’ll highlight a number of topics to do with the immigration system and process in the U.S. including:

  • The purpose of the U.S. immigration system
  • Family-Based Immigration
  • Employment-Based Immigration
  • Asylum and Refugees
  • The Diversity Visa Program
  • Support your loved ones at home

The purpose of the U.S. immigration system

The United States is a country built by immigrants. The continual flow of immigrants from all around the world into the United States over the last few centuries has created the U.S. of today.

According to the American Immigration Council, these are several principles that are supposed to guide the way the U.S. immigrant system works: the reunification of families, admitting those with skills valuable to the U.S economy, the promotion of diversity and the protection of refugees. These are the principles that should inform every immigration application. If you are thinking of moving to the United States you should also consider whether your story aligns with any of these principles.

The system is governed by the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) which allows the U.S. to give up to 675,000 permanent immigration visas every year across the various categories which we will discuss below. Once you receive an immigrant visa you are a lawful permanent resident (LPR) of the U.S. You can legally work and after five years of residing in the U.S. you can apply for U.S. citizenship.

See the United States Governments Official website for Immigration and Citizenship for more details.

Now let’s take a look at the various categories of immigration and how they are all supposed to function.

Family-Based Immigration

The family-based immigration system enables U.S. citizens and LPRs to bring particular family members to the U.S. As a family member, you can be admitted either through the ‘immediate relatives’ or the ‘family preference’ system.

There is an unlimited number of visas available every year for immediate relatives as long as they meet the standard eligibility criteria:

  • Spouses of U.S. citizens;
  • Parents of U.S. citizens as long as the child is over 21 years old; and
  • Unmarried minor children of U.S. citizens (Under 21 years old)

Then a limited number of immigration visas are available via the family preference system as long as they meet the standard eligibility criteria:

  • Spouses and unmarried children (both minor and adult)
  • Adult children and sisters or brothers of U.S. citizens (must be over 21 to petition for a sibling

The system to determine the number of immigrants arriving on family preference visas is quite complicated. In principle the yearly maximum number of family-based immigrant visas awarded is 480,000, see here for more detail:

For the immigrant process to begin for family-based visas, a U.S. citizen or LPR sponsor needs to petition for the individual relative, show the legitimacy of the relationship, meet minimum income requirements and sign an affidavit concerning financial responsibility. The relative must also meet eligibility criteria including submitting to a medical exam and obtaining required vaccinations (such as the COVID-19 vaccination).

Employment-Based Immigration

If you have skills deemed valuable by the U.S. then you will be able to apply for an employment-based immigration visa. There are a few kinds of immigration you can pursue under the banner of employment-based immigration including Temporary Visa Classifications and Permanent Immigration.

Temporary Visa Classifications

This visa classification allows employers to hire and petition foreign nationals for particular roles for limited periods. There are over 20 different types of temporary visa classifications for non-immigrant workers including P visas (athletes, skilled performers, entertainers); R-1 visas (religious workers), O-1 (workers of extraordinary ability) and A visas (diplomatic employees).

If you leave your temporary job position, your employment is terminated, or your status expires then you have to leave the United States.

Permanent Immigration

140,000 permanent employment-based immigrants may enter the U.S. every year. However, this number also includes eligible spouses and minor children, meaning the number is never actually 140,000. There are five preference categories for permanent employment-based immigration and the number of immigrants allowed via each category differs, see here for more detail:

The whole process may take some time and will usually be completed, and in some cases finances, with the assistance of the prospective employer.

Another element to consider is that there is a cap on the number of immigrants allowed in from one country (Per-country ceilings). Currently, no group of permanent immigrants from a single country can comprise more than seven percent of the total number of people immigrating to the U.S. in a single year.

Asylum and Refugees

Refugees and Asylum seekers will be granted entry to the United States based upon their inability to remain or turn to their home country because of a “well-founded fear of persecution”. In order to qualify this fear must be to do with race, membership in a specific social group, religion, national origin or political opinion.

The President in consultation with Congress will determine the yearly numerical ceiling for the admission of refugees. Most refugees will apply while they are in a “transition country” before they arrive in the U.S. Thousands of refugees are granted entry to the U.S. every year to escape persecution and begin a new life in safety.

The Diversity Visa Program

In 1990 the Immigration Act was signed into law. This act created the Diversity Visa Program which was designed to help immigrants from countries with low rates of immigration to the U.S make the journey.

Every year around 50,000 immigration visas are randomly allocated through a computer-generated lottery to individuals on a wait list. This route to the U.S is often referred to as the lottery visa. To be eligible for this kind of visa you must have a high-school education or have, within the past five years, been in a job for a minimum of two years that required at least two years of experience or training, see here for more detail.

Support your loved ones at home

Once you have arrived in the United States and the immigration process is complete, you may want to send some money home to family and friends. With Small World you can do this easily.

Small World is an international money transfer service that helps millions of people transfer money overseas in a way that is quick, secure and easy. To learn more about how Small World can work for you, click here.

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