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Immigration Basics: The Paths to the U.S.

Romish Badani

The rules around the United States immigration system are mind-numbingly complex. In part one of our three part Immigration 101 series, we provided an overview of the key players involved in the immigration system. In this post we'll break down the basics of immigration law. Understanding the various paths to enter and remain in the country is a critical foundation for evaluating proposed changes to the system.

At a high level there are two kinds of visas, temporary and permanent. A temporary visa permits you to be in the country for a period of time but your intent must be to return to your home country when the visa expires. You would apply for a temporary visa if you were visiting the U.S. for vacation or attending a university, for example.

Getting a permanent visa means the same as getting a green card or being a legal permanent resident. This is an intermediary step in the path to citizenship that allows you to be in the U.S. indefinitely. There are four paths to getting a green card:

Through a family member

This is the most common path, with approximately 70% of legal immigrants getting admitted through a relationship with a family member. The basic idea behind family-based immigration is that U.S. citizens and green card holders should have the opportunity to bring their family to the country permanently. There is no cap on the number of visas for immediate relatives of U.S. citizens (spouse and young children), but there is for non-immediate relatives of U.S. citizens and all relatives of green card holders. Preference is based on a combination of how immediate the relative is and whether the U.S-based family member is a citizen or green card holder. This preference-based quota system leads to a long time-to-approval for many prospective immigrants because the number of applicants dramatically exceeds the quota.

Through an employer

Approximately 15% of legal immigrants receive green cards through an employer sponsorship. Like family-based visas, employment-based visas are granted through a preference-based quota system. These visas are meant to support immigrants with unique skills that couldn't otherwise be filled by an American. As you can imagine, this becomes a fairly subjective assessment and the application process is extensive. One unique path that falls under employment-based immigration is the EB-5 program that grants a green card to immigrants that invest $1,000,000 in the U.S. and create 10 jobs for American citizens.

Through asylum

Approximately 5-10% receive green cards through asylum or as refugees. This is the U.S. government's way to supporting global citizens that face potential harm in their home country. In today's world that could be immigrants seeking asylum from countries like Syria.

Through the visa lottery

This is exactly what it sounds like a low likelihood opportunity to win big. Every year the government makes 55,000 visas (~5% of total) available to countries with low levels of immigration to encourage diversity in the U.S. With millions of people applying for this opportunity, the odds of winning are very slim.

Although the paths described above may sound straightforward, the process of determining which path (and subpaths) to apply to can be extremely complicated. Choosing the wrong route can be costly and jeopardize your immigration status in future. Want to learn what immigration options are available to you? Check out LexSpot's free Eligibility Tool, a customized guide to your options.

You're now well on your way to chatting immigration with the Congressional Gang of Eight that plans on unveiling an immigration bill this week. In our final post of this series, we'll get into the details of the immigration reform debate.


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