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Immigration Overview

Understanding the processes involved in migration can be overwhelming. U.S. immigration policies continuously evolve. Some rules that applied to past administrations may not apply during the current administration, and new rules are constantly being added. That is why it is essential to stay informed and understand the immigration laws that affect your status.

This page provides a comprehensive overview of the various aspects of immigration law to help you clearly understand your rights and responsibilities as an immigrant. It also aims to answer some of your questions as you embark on your journey as a migrant in the United States.

What Visa Do I Need to Go to the U.S.?

Coming to the United States often starts with a simple question: “What visa do I need?" The answer mainly depends on why you are coming to the country. Is it for business, tourism, visiting family members, studying, or are you seeking to reside in the U.S. permanently?

U.S. visa programs are either non-immigrant or immigrant. Non-immigrant visas are given to those coming to the U.S. temporarily, while immigrant visas are for those coming to the U.S. to establish permanent residence.

Personal, familial, and professional circumstances change. Fortunately, so can your U.S. visa. There are instances where one visa application could evolve into a different one. Some of these progression are as follows:

Transitioning From a Student Visa to a Work Visa

A foreign student coming to the U.S. with an F-1 visa could apply for work after graduation. 

With an employer's sponsorship, they can transition to an H-1B visa. After a few years, if an employer is willing, they could even gain a green card or permanent resident status.

Transitioning From Temporary Work Visa to Permanent Resident

A foreign national coming to the U.S. as a professional with a temporary H-1B visa could eventually settle there. They can ask their employer for sponsorship to lawful permanent resident status, and they could also qualify for one through marriage with a U.S. citizen. This is known as a "dual-intent" visa, and you are not punished for initially getting a non-immigrant visa and then switching over to an immigrant visa. 

In other cases, such as if you are in the U.S. for a business trip on a B-1 visa, you would have to leave the country before applying for an immigrant visa.

Family-Based Immigration

An individual visiting the U.S. to visit a family member through a family-sponsored visa could also become a permanent resident. This is possible through family-based immigration. You can also seek permanent residency if you meet someone while studying or working in the U.S. and end up marrying them.

“Understanding U.S. Visas" offers a more in-depth knowledge of the available visa types tailored to your specific purpose.

Visiting the U.S.

If you wish to visit the U.S. briefly and do not intend to stay there, several non-immigrant visa options are available. The U.S. Embassy or Consulate typically processes U.S. visas in the applicant's home country and can issue different types of non-immigrant visas. However, certain foreign nationals need not apply for U.S. visas. They are citizens of countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program (VSP).

Although many non-immigrant visas exist, the B-1/B-2 visitor visas are the most common. B-1 visas are for business, and B-2 visas are for tourism. A combination of business and tourism is called a B-1/B-2 visa.

It is a good idea to seek the visa category that aligns with your intended purpose. FindLaw has more information on different types of temporary visas elsewhere on the site.

Studying in the U.S.

With its top-tier educational institutions and diverse culture, the United States is one of the leading destinations for students worldwide. Whether looking for a degree at a renowned university or seeking other training, acquiring a non-immigrant student visa is the first step to studying in the U.S. The main types of student visas are F-1 and M-1 visas.

F-1 visa allows you to come to the United States as a full-time student in any of the following accredited academic institutions:

  • University
  • College
  • Conservatory
  • Seminary
  • Academic high school
  • Elementary school
  • Other academic institution
  • Language training program

An M-1 visa allows you to come to the United States for vocational or nonacademic programs, except language training.

The visa application process often requires the student to enroll in an academic program. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) must approve the school through the Student and Exchange Visitors Program (SEVP). A successful visa interview with the U.S. consulate or U.S. embassy is also required. In addition, you should show your financial ability to support yourself during your study.

For a comprehensive overview of non-immigrant student visas, visit the “Non-immigrant Student Visas" article.

Working in the U.S.

The U.S. offers various work opportunities for skilled and talented professionals worldwide. Those wishing to work in the United States may apply for one of several different kinds of employment-based immigrant or non-immigrant visas. Non-immigrant visas, such as the H-1B and other H visas, allow employment with certain employers for a specific position. Other employment-authorized visas include the L visa for intra-company transferees. Extraordinary artists, scientists, athletes, educators, and religious workers use the O, P, and R visas, respectively.

Each kind of employment-based visa has requirements that you need to meet. They require different documentation and qualifications depending on each case.

For more information about work visas, this article by FindLaw provides a comprehensive overview of employment-based visas.

Becoming a U.S. Citizen

Immigration is the term used to describe migrants seeking to enter the U.S. Naturalization, on the other hand, is for immigrants already in the U.S. seeking to obtain citizenship. The federal government oversees naturalization, sanctioned by the Attorney General. It is the legal process by which a noncitizen becomes a U.S. citizen, as stated in the United States Code (U.S.C.). It occurs after fulfilling specific requirements imposed by Congress in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).

Citizenship, when not acquired by birth, is available to lawful permanent residents of good moral character through the "naturalization" process. Depending on the applicant's circumstances, the period required after obtaining residency varies. Spouses of U.S. citizens may apply for citizenship after three years as a permanent resident. Most others must accrue five years of permanent residency before applying for citizenship.

Most applicants must be proficient in English and capable of passing a short civics test on the history and governance of the United States. However, there are exceptions for the disabled and elderly. All applicants must be willing to swear an oath of loyalty to the country.

This article by FindLaw, “What Does It Take To Become a Naturalized U.S. Citizen?" discusses the details of the naturalization process.

Living in the U.S.

The United States is a “melting pot" of cultures that offers different opportunities for many. To successfully integrate into the country, it is essential to know about the complex rules of U.S. immigration laws.

Getting a Green Card

The "green card" is the common term for Lawful Permanent Residency. This status permits indefinite presence in the United States, the ability to enter and exit the country with few restrictions, and the ability to work or study without seeking permission. Residency is commonly obtained through a petition filed by a family member or employer on the beneficiary's behalf. The nature of the relationship between the parties often impacts the availability of residency and the speed at which it may be acquired.

In limited circumstances, an individual can petition to become a lawful permanent resident without a sponsor. These categories include foreign nationals with extraordinary ability in their field, investors who have positively impacted the U.S. economy, and certain groups for humanitarian programs.

Lawful permanent residents (LPRs) are called "green card holders." But don't let the name fool you; the residency card's color has changed frequently. LPRs reside permanently in the United States. They can work for any employer without needing additional documentation and enter and leave the country within certain restrictions.

Residency is typically acquired when a migrant, family member, or employer files a petition on behalf of the immigrant. In some cases, humanitarian programs may also lead to residency. However, it is crucial to stay updated with the recent changes in the immigration system, particularly for those attempting to acquire LPR status. Failure to follow these terms may result in loss of legal immigration status, abandonment, or other violations.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is an immigration policy that delays the deportation of undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children.

The Obama Administration initiated this policy in 2012. The program aims to grant deferred action to individuals who arrived in the U.S. at under 16 years old and were under 31 years old as of June 15, 2012. They should have lived in the U.S. without lawful status throughout their stay since at least June 15, 2007. The consideration against deportation or removal of undocumented immigrants is effective for two years and can be renewed. Receiving DACA does not automatically grant naturalization or a green card. However, it offers various benefits to its recipients, such as protection from deportation or removal for a certain period and the opportunity to work and enroll in academic institutions.

The Trump administration attempted to end DACA, but the action was challenged in court. In June 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that the administration's attempt to terminate the program was unlawful.

However, several court rulings in 2023 now prevent the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) from approving new DACA applications. DACA is a hotly contested political and legal topic in the U.S., meaning the U.S. government's stance on it can change depending on the current presidential administration and recent court decisions.

Residency Through Family

The U.S. government places particular importance on family reunification, providing pathways for U.S. citizens to petition for their close family members. This circumstance generally means the petitioner is a U.S. citizen who files a petition with the USCIS to get their immediate relative permanent residency. Eligible family members include spouses, children, and parents.

The process requires specific steps, and the USCIS may ask the petitioner and the beneficiary to produce certain documents to support their application process. They should also prove the absence of factors that could bar residency. Laws like the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act and Immigration Reform and Control Act examine individuals' records and history.

The following issues may pose a risk of inadmissibility for acquiring a family-based visa:

  • Previous public charges
  • Public violations
  • Criminal convictions
  • Other factors

However, certain waivers may apply and be granted in some instances. For more information about family-based immigration, it's a good idea to consult with an immigration law attorney.

A green card may be immediately available to the family member, but often, there are long waits, and the immigration process can take months if not years. The wait may also depend on the relationship between the petitioner and the beneficiary. For instance, unmarried children of U.S. citizens may have different waiting times than their spouses.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is the federal agency that handles visa processing, and they provide detailed requirements for eligibility for immigration status. The USCIS also issues visas in various forms, such as immigrant, nonimmigrant visas, and more.

Diversity Lottery

The Diversity Visa Lottery Program is another means for a foreign national to acquire residency. The federal government provides visas to an immigrant despite the absence of a petitioner. The Department of State issues 50,000 immigrant visas every fiscal year from worldwide lotteries. Not all countries qualify for these lotteries.

Seeking Asylum Status in the U.S.

Asylum seekers come to the United States to flee persecution in their country. The persecution is often based on political opinion, religion, race, nationality, or membership in a social group. 

The number of immigrants with refugee or asylee status allowed in the country may vary yearly. Specific rules and restrictions may also apply depending on the immigrant's national origin and demographic.

Seek Legal Advice from an Immigration Law Attorney

The federal government monitors visa processing in the United States. Acquiring legal status requires a series of steps overseen by the USCIS, although immigration enforcement may vary case by case. Laws passed by Congress can change with each new administration. In addition, a misstep with the Department of Homeland Security can lead to deportation.

Navigating the intricacies of U.S. immigration laws can be challenging and overwhelming. Consulting an immigration attorney can prove to be tremendously helpful. They can assist you with making informed decisions and taking the proper steps to legal immigration.

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

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