silhouettes of immigrants in front of a backdrop of the u.s. flag

Everything You Need to Know About Immigration in the United States

The United States (U.S.) has the largest immigrant population in the world. It has the highest number of immigrants compared to any other country on the planet. At present, there are around 47 million people who weren’t born in the U.S. residing in the country and accounting for approximately 14.4% of the total population. The rate of immigration has been on the rise, especially since the 1970s, attracting the largest number of immigrants from China, India and Mexico.

In this post, we will understand why so many people are interested in immigrating to the U.S., what the different types of immigrants are and what Americans feel about immigration. Next, we will briefly look at the characteristics of the U.S. immigration system, the process of immigrating to the U.S. and acquiring U.S. citizenship. We will also look at the different organizations involved in this process. Then, we’ll look at deportation and inadmissibility into the U.S. Finally, we will look at the Biden-Harris administration’s immigration reform agenda and how much their government has progressed so far.

Reasons for Immigration to the United States

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Image Credit: Moms Rising

People are interested in migrating to the U.S. either for a shorter period of time or to stay indefinitely. In the short term, they may go there as international students at universities, as visitors to visit their families in the U.S., as employees or as tourists. In the long term, they wish to acquire U.S. nationality, reunite with their family members residing in the U.S., to seek refuge or asylum.

In many cases, one member of a family or community migrates first to settle themselves down and pave the way for other members of their family or community to join them afterwards. Those following the member who migrated initially to another destination, engage in something called chain migration.

There are various reasons that motivate people to relocate from their place of origin to another location, either within their country or outside their country. They wish to escape political instability, lack of economic opportunity, armed conflicts, corruption, violence, war, pandemics, natural disasters, poverty, persecution to lead a better quality of life, where there are ample economic opportunities, access to basic services like quality education and healthcare. To many, the U.S. seems like the ideal place because of its desirable living conditions, ample work opportunities for people of all skill levels, higher relative wages, a reasonable cost of living and access to public services such as quality healthcare and education.

Motivations to Relocate

Some plan and make the conscious decision of moving to another location, while others are compelled to evacuate their country of origin all of a sudden in order to survive and seek safety. A migrant, for example, is generally referred to as someone who makes the decision and plans to move from one place to another either within their own country or outside their country. They aren’t forced to leave their country but they seek better opportunities. Migrants, however, do not settle down in their chosen destination. They stay there temporarily.

Immigrants, on the other hand, decide to settle down in the place they plan to relocate to, indefinitely. Like migrants, they also leave their place of origin to seek better opportunities and a better quality of life.

A refugee, however, is a person who finds themselves outside their country of origin and is either unable to or unwilling to return there. They’re also not able to avail themselves of the protection of their country of origin for various reasons, fearing violation of their human rights and persecution upon return.

Asylum seekers face the same issue, but the difference between a refugee and an asylum seeker is that the latter aren’t officially recognized as refugees. In the U.S., refugee status is granted before they enter the country, whereas asylum seeker status is granted only while trying to enter the U.S. through a port of entry, or after entering the country.

Types of Immigrants in the United States

There are 4 types of immigrants in the U.S.

  • The first category included non-immigrants who enter the country legally for a short amount of time, such as students, visitors visiting for business and tourism purposes, fiancées and people who’ve been granted Temporary Protected Status.
  • The second is U.S. citizens, referring to people who have become naturalized citizens of the U.S. or who were born in the country.
  • The next category is lawful permanent residents or green cardholders. These people have been permitted to stay and work in the U.S. permanently.
  • Finally, there are undocumented immigrants who reside in the country without permission. They’ve, for instance, overstayed their visa or entered the country illegally i.e. not through one of the ports of entry.

Importance of Immigrants to the United States

doctor checking patient's blood pressure
Image Credit: New York Times

Many in the U.S. have expressed their concerns about the rise in the number of immigrants in the country. Many of these concerns have been disproved by studies and debates regarding this subject.

One concern was that immigration causes the growth of salaries to slow down in the long term. There seems to be little evidence to support this concern. Another misconception is that immigrants are a burden to the economy, that they hurt the wages of American-born workers, that they have no skills, are poorly educated, and are a burden to public and essential services.

Immigration and especially an increased rate of immigration has instead shown certain long term advantages to the country overall.

First of all, an increase in the number of immigrants ensures a steady supply of labour as the ageing workforce is on its way to retirement.

The young talent is anticipated to innovate, generate jobs, start businesses, pay taxes and lead to an overall productive and growing economy. Immigrants of working-age create more jobs, as mentioned earlier, and generate more tax revenue. In 2018, immigrants added $458.7 billion to overall tax revenue. This included taxes from undocumented immigrants as well. This amount was used to fund public services like schools, highways, hospitals and more. Additionally, in the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, immigrants, much like U.S. born individuals, have also contributed to the workforce as essential workers, researchers and farmers, for example, saving millions of precious lives.

The Process of Immigration

Like all countries in the world, individuals trying to enter the United States require a valid visa. There are numerous visas issued based primarily on the purpose and duration of the visit. However, these visas are categorized as either non-immigrant or immigrant visas. For the sake of this post, we shall focus on immigrant visas.

A foreign citizen planning to live and work in the United States indefinitely requires one of the immigrant visas to first enter the country. This is different from being granted residency status. Visas have to be obtained prior to arrival, they do not allow permanent stay, and they usually have an expiry date. Immigrant visas are a path to obtaining permanent residency but don’t provide permanent residency for themselves.

There are a few different types of immigrant visas, of which family-based and employment-based immigration visas are most common. This is because an application for an immigrant visa begins with either a U.S. employer or a family member who is either a U.S. citizen or a lawful permanent resident (LPR) of the United States, of at least 21 years of age to sponsor a foreign citizen willing to immigrate. Less common ways to acquire an immigrant visa is through the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program or through a returning resident visa application.

Every year, the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) allows the approval of around 675,000 permanent immigrant visas altogether.

How is an application made for an Immigrant Visa?

The process to successfully find a way to immigrate to the U.S. is complex. It begins with a petition being filed by the sponsor, which in this case is a family member or employer. The petition is filed with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

Once it is approved, the petition is transferred to the National Visa Centre (NVC) where it is further processed. Upon completion of the process, the applicant, or the person willing to immigrate, is sent a welcome letter. After this, certain payments such as the immigrant visa application processing fee and the Affidavit of support fee are made. The Affidavit of Support, also known as Form I-864, is a document that the petitioner signs to accept financial responsibility for the foreign applicant. For this, the petitioner is often required to present necessary supporting documents and show evidence of their finances.

Once the fees are paid and processed, the applicant fills out Form DS-260, the Application for Immigrant Visa. DS-260 is an online form that foreign citizens in the process of applying for a family-based immigration visa with the NVC and the U.S. Embassy or consulate. The applicant also submits necessary documents, then waits for the NVC to schedule a visa interview at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate.

Prior to the interview, the applicant gathers necessary documents and gets their medical examination completed by a doctor approved by the U.S. embassy or consulate. After the interview, the applicant is informed whether or not their visa is approved. If it is, the visa and the passport are returned.


Before moving forward, let us look more closely at the government agencies that play a role in the process of immigration.

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services

united states citizenship and immigrant services
Image Credit: VA

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is a government agency that is responsible for ensuring lawful immigration of foreign citizens to the United States. There are currently over 200 USCIS offices around the world.

It was created on March 1st 2003 after the Homeland Security Act of 2002 split the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) into three new agencies; USCIS, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

USCIS has up-to-date information about immigration, all the different application processes, forms and documents required. Its virtual assistant, Emma, is always active on the USCIS website to answer queries regarding immigration in a manner that is comprehensible to all, in both English and Spanish.

It even has services like myUSCIS which allows a personalised platform that facilitates the user through the immigration process. The platform not only provides useful information but tools and resources to help file required forms and to help find classes to prepare for the naturalization test.

National Visa Center

The National Visa Center (NVC) is a government agency located in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Once immigrant visa petitions are filed and are accepted by USCIS, they are transferred to the NVC for pre-processing.

The agency is in charge of collecting all necessary supporting documents, visa application fees, issuing an immigrant visa number and notifying applicants on how and when to further proceed with their applications.

National Visa Center buidling
Image Credit: Citizen Path

Family-Based Immigration Visa

In family-based immigration, U.S. citizens can petition foreign citizens who are immediate members of their family such as spouses, minor children, parents, siblings. While U.S. LPRs can file an immigrant visa petition for their spouse or unmarried children.  They must file Form I-130 or Petition for Alien Relative. The form proves or establishes the relationship of the U.S. citizen or LPR to the foreigner trying to immigrate.

Around 226,000 family-based immigration visas are issued per year.

Employment-Based Immigration Visa

Every year, around 140,000 employment-based immigration visas are issued to foreign citizens.  Employment-based immigrant visas are issued to qualified applicants. In most cases, applying for this visa requires a job offer from a U.S. employer

And requires the employer to acquire a certificate from the Department of Labor, that establishes the fact that no U.S. citizens of LRPs are available, willing or skilled to fill up the available vacancy. The employer then files Form I-140, Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker, with USCIS. This categorizes the foreign applicant as someone eligible for an employment-based immigrant visa.

Employment-based immigration visas are divided into five preference categories, which are further divided into multiple sub-categories. The five categories are as follows:

Employment First Preference E1: Priority Worker and Persons of Extraordinary Ability

This visa is for priority workers and persons of extraordinary talents in the fields of sciences, arts, business, education or athletics. They must demonstrate exceptional performance either in their countries of origin or internationally. These individuals are able to file their own petition through Form I-140 with USCIS and do not require a job offer.

This category includes exceptional educators or researchers with international recognition as well. These individuals, however, require an employer to file Form I-140 for them.

The E1 category also includes executives and managers who have already been employed by a U.S. company at another branch. In this case, the employer is required to provide a job offer and file a petition for them.

Employment Second Preference E2: Professionals Holding Advanced Degrees and Persons of Exceptional Ability

This visa category is for professionals who hold advanced degrees or have shown exceptional abilities in the arts, business or sciences. They require a labor certificate, a job offer from a U.S. employer and a petition filed by them. In certain circumstances, they can apply for an exemption from a job offer and labor certificate. In that case, they can file their own petition.

Employment Third First Preference E3: Skilled Workers, Professionals, and Unskilled Workers (Other Workers)

This category of visa is for professionals holding baccalaureate degrees, two years of training or work experience. They also require labor certification and an approved Form I-140 petition filed by their U.S. employer.

Employment Fourth Preference E4: Certain Special Immigrants

This visa is for applicants who are beneficiaries of an approved Form I-360, Petition for Amerasian, Widower, or Special Immigrant, with some exceptions.

Employment Fifth Preference E5: Immigrant Investors

The final category is for foreign investors who will invest $500,000 to $1,000,000 in commercial enterprises that would create at least 10 full-time jobs for U.S. citizens, LPRs and other lawful residents

More information at:

Returning Resident Visa

Another type of immigrant visa is the returning resident visa. If an LPR or conditional resident stays outside the U.S. for more than 1 year or over the period of their re-entry Permit, they are required to apply for an immigrant visa to enter and continue life as a permanent resident in the U.S. A re-entry permit is essentially a travel document issued to permanent resident cardholders to allow them to return and resume life in the U.S. as permanent residents after a lengthy stay outside the country.

Click here for more information on returning resident visas. 

The Path to Lawful Permanent Residency and Citizenship

Immigrants intend to settle down in the U.S. indefinitely. To be able to legally stay and work in the United States permanently, simply entering the country isn’t enough. So, they begin the process of acquiring a permanent resident card, more commonly known as a green card. After obtaining a green card, some decide to go forward and get U.S. citizenship.

What is a Green Card?

specimen permanent resident card
Specimen Green Card. Image Credit: Path2USA

The Form I-551 permanent resident card, more famously known as the U.S. green card, is an official document issued by the U.S. government. It permits a foreign citizen to reside and work in the U.S. permanently.

In the U.S., employers verify whether employees are eligible to work in the United States, regardless of nationality and citizenship. For certain categories, an EAD or Employment Authorization Document acts as proof showing a person is permitted to work in the U.S. for a certain amount of time. For an EAD, they file Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization with USPIC. Green card holders, however, do not require an EAD.

The card is also proof of a person’s immigration status, proof of their identification and a reminder of LPRs rights. Acquiring a green card creates a pathway for U.S. citizenship.

Green cards may be valid for 2 years, for conditional residents, or 10 years for permanent residents. The cardholders are permanent residents but the card itself must be renewed every 10 years.

Conditional residents are unable to renew their green cards. They must file a petition to remove conditions for residency before the expiration of the card. Conditional residency based on family or marriage must be removed by filing Form I-751, whereas conditional status as an investor or entrepreneur is removed by filing Form I-829.

Approval of these petitions will grant permanent residency and a Green Card valid for 10 years. Failing to remove these conditions will deprive the person’s status as a permanent resident.

The Process of Obtaining a Green Card

The process to obtain a Green Card is complex and overlaps with some of the processes mentioned earlier. Applications can be made from within the U.S. or outside the U.S.

First of all, it is determined whether the foreign citizen willing to immigrate is eligible to receive permanent residence under one of the eligibility categories. Individuals may be able to receive a green card as a family member of a U.S. citizen or LPR, as an employee, as a special immigrant, as a refugee or asylum seeker, as a victim of human trafficking and other crimes or, as a victim of abuse and even through registry, among other categories.  The process of applying for a permanent resident card may therefore differ depending on each category.

Generally, however, the process begins by getting a U.S. citizen or LPR to file various petitions with USCIS, like earlier. For certain family members, Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative is filed. For employees, Form I-140, Immigrant Petition for Alien Workers is filed by employees. Those who enter and stay on humanitarian grounds can file petitions for themselves.

Once this is determined, the next step is to file an immigrant petition with USCIS. Upon approval of the immigrant petition, there are two approaches taken for the application process. Those already residing in the U.S. file an adjustment of status with USCIS. Those outside the U.S. undergo consular processing.

Adjustment of Status

An applicant already living in the U.S. goes through the adjustment of status process in order to apply for a green card, without the need for them to return to their country of origin to process their visa. They file Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status with USCIS. Once approved, the applicant is notified to provide their biometrics at an Application Support Center. Following this, USCIS decides whether or not to interview the applicant. If the interview is carried forward, the applicant brings along necessary documents that were filed with Form I-485, such as passports, photographs, travel documents, or any additional documents requested. An important document is Form I-693 or the Report of Medical Examination and Vaccination Record.

The majority of those who adjust their status to become permanent residents must submit this form. It is either filed along with Form I-485 or brought to the interview.  It proves that the applicant isn’t inadmissible to the country based on public health concerns, such as being a carrier of a major contagious disease, not being able to provide required proof of vaccinations, having mental or physical conditions that could lead to harmful public behaviour and abusing substances like drugs and alcohol, among other health concerns. Once the application is approved, an approval notice is sent over before the Green Card.

Consular Processing

interview for visa application
Consular Interview. Image Credit: Citizen Path

The consular processing is done at a U.S. Department of State consulate by green card applicants outside the U.S. First of all, this process also requires an approved Form I-130 or Form I-140, filed either by a family member with U.S. citizenship or LPRs or by a U.S. employer. Approved petitions are sent to the NVC, where the petition remains until an immigrant visa number is issued to the person willing to immigrate. The NVC then notifies the applicant when to submit necessary supporting documents and necessary fees to be issued an immigrant visa. Once the visa is available, an interview will be scheduled with a consular officer, where it is decided whether the visa has been approved. If the visa is granted, a sealed packet also known as a visa packet will be sent to the applicant. This packet must be presented to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer at the port of entry in the U.S. If the CBP officer allows entry, the person enters as a lawful permanent resident.

Also, when the applicant receives the visa packet, they pay a USCIS Immigrant Fee as well, to produce and mail the green card. The green card is mailed only after arriving in the U.S. as they are only issued or replaced in the U.S.

For more details, visit:

Diversity Visa Program

Another method through which a foreign national can ‘win’ a green card is through the diversity immigrant visa program. The program is essentially a lottery where around 50,000 individuals from countries with low immigration rates to the U.S. are randomly selected to get permanent residency in the U.S. every year. Registrations for the lottery start at a certain point in the year. This year it was open from October 6th to October 9th 2021. Upon selection, the candidate is processed, interviewed and required to pay certain fees. If they are approved and admitted to the U.S., they enter as lawful permanent residents.

Click here for more details on the Diversity Visa Program.

Becoming a citizen

Many green card holders seek the path to citizenship because of its many benefits. It allows LPRs new rights, responsibilities and privileges like voting in federal elections, travelling with a U.S. passport, serving on a jury, being able to perform federal jobs, run for office, being eligible for financial aid, government-funded scholarships and more. Some LPRs, on the other hand, choose not to acquire citizenship due to language and financial limitations.

There are four known ways to become U.S. citizens. The first way to citizenship is to be born within the United States or its territories. Any child born in these territories is automatically granted U.S. citizenship.

The next method is obtaining citizenship through acquisition. This is where a child automatically acquires U.S. citizenship after birth despite being born outside the U.S. as at least one or both parents were U.S. citizens at the time of their birth. There are, however, certain conditions to be met before the child can acquire citizenship. The N-600, Application for Certificate of Citizenship is filed to get official documentation for their child through this method.

Click here for up-to-date conditions for a child to acquire U.S. citizenship. 

The third path to citizenship is derivation. This is when an individual below 18-years-old is a child of a naturalized U.S. citizen, automatically derives U.S. citizenship. It is possible if the child is a green card holder, has one parent who is a U.S. citizen, and the child resides in the U.S. in the custody of a U.S. citizen parent.

naturalization ceremony
Naturalization ceremony. Image Credit:  Scott McIntyre for The Atlantic

The final method is naturalization. This is the most common path taken by immigrants to become full-fledged U.S. citizens. To qualify, immigrants must be at least 18 years of age,  hold a Green Card for at least 5 years, and if they’re the spouse of a U.S. citizen, for 3 years. They must have continuously lived or have been physically present in the U.S., have basic English literacy, maintain a good moral character, have sufficient knowledge of the history and governance of the US and show loyalty towards the principles of the U.S. constitution. Naturalization involves a 10-step process that includes taking the Naturalization Test, sitting for an interview and filling out Form N-400. Form N-400 is essentially an application form for naturalization.

Inadmissibility to the United States

Immigrant visas are sometimes rejected as applicants many a time provide incorrect information or do not provide sufficient information. Additionally, there may be certain individuals who aren’t permitted to enter or stay in the U.S. according to the grounds for inadmissibility set by the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).

Below are just some of the common reasons for inadmissibility or denial of a visa.

Inadmissibility can be due to a contagious disease of public health significance such as tuberculosis, Gonorrhea, Syphilis, etc. The failure to produce proof of recommended vaccinations by the U.S. government is a reason as well. It could also be due to a physical or mental disorder of public health significance. And due to substance addiction or abuse.

It may also be because a person has a history of drug trafficking, criminal convictions, prostitution, a record or intent of committing espionage, terrorism, torture, and participation in Nazi persecutions or genocide. The violation of immigration laws and the probability of relying on public welfare are also reasons for inadmissibility.

In the case an applicant is declared inadmissible, some time is provided to prove that the claims are incorrect or to file for a waiver by filling out Form I-601, Application for Waiver of Grounds of Inadmissibility.

A foreign national can also be determined to be inadmissible by an officer at the U.S. port of entry if new information that wasn’t revealed earlier in the application is revealed. Or, if they find an attempt to misuse a visa.

Green card holders who leave the U.S. for over 180 days are also investigated for inadmissibility upon their return. This is because there may be a possibility for the LPR to have returned after developing a contagious disease, or committing a crime, for instance. In these cases, the foreign individual, instead of being denied entry, is paroled into the U.S. to dispute accusations and claims.

Role of Immigration Lawyers

American Immigration Lawyers Association logo
AILA. Image Credit: Wikipedia

Many a time, applicants are unable to successfully enter the United States because they encounter numerous issues with filing their applications, or they end up filing them incorrectly. The process is indeed complex. To avoid these errors, avoid unnecessary costs and make the process of filing applications easier, many individuals hire immigration lawyers with proper experience in dealing with immigration to the U.S. The lawyers help in gathering appropriate documents to prove eligibility, prepare or guide the applicant on how to get through with interviews and, defend them in case of deportation, among other services.

In the U.S., the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) is the sole legal association for immigration attorneys. Members of this association represent people trying to apply for permanent residency in the U.S. Their aim is to advocate for fair immigration law.

Illegal Immigration in the United States

Illegal immigrants refer to those who enter the U.S. with fraudulent travel documents, without any legal documents or who overstay their visa. In such cases, the individuals can be deported without a hearing at an immigration court. Foreign citizens may also be deported if they’re found to engage in criminal activity or be an overall threat to the public. Deportation is the act of officially removing a foreign national from the U.S. for violating immigration laws. Before they’re deported or while they await trial at an immigration court, foreign nationals are held up at detention centres at ICE detention facilities.

image of a crowded detention centre
Image of a detention centre. Image Credit: Milwaukee Independent

Upon hearing the case, if a judge rules to carry out the deportation, the country receiving the foreign national must consent to accept them and arrange the necessary travel documents for them. ICE then carries out the deportation process.

Click here for more details on deportation in the U.S.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is a program announced by the secretary of Homeland Security on June 15, 2012. The program protects certain young people who as children entered the United States as undocumented immigrants. It protects them from deportation and provides a work permit. The program is valid for 2 years from the date of issue but it can be continued to renew.

As of July 2021, a federal judge’s ruling bars first-time DACA applicants from applying to the DACA program.

Biden’s Immigration Reform Agenda

picture of president joe biden
U.S. President Joe Biden. Image Credit: Vox

The Biden-Harris administration planned to make changes in the U.S. immigration system to allow the opportunity for around 11 million undocumented immigrants actively contributing and living in the country, to acquire citizenship. On 20th January of this year, their administration announced their plan to introduce reforms to the immigration system. These include lifting the Muslim and Africa ban, putting a stop to the construction of the wall at the border, logically managing border issues and tackling the root causes of migration and facing them. Causes such as instability, violence, economic insecurity, etc. They planned to collaborate with international organizations and governments to increase their capacity of accommodating migrants there and set up more humanitarian asylums at the borders, specifically the southern border.

Biden’s plan focused on making the United States a safe, just, legal and well-organized immigration system, one that openly welcomes immigrants, allow them to contribute to the country and keep families united, and repeal some of the immigration policies issued by the Trump Administration.

Actions Taken So Far

So far, the Biden-Harris administration has managed to process thousands of people who were deported earlier and better means for families to receive legal representation. They also plan to hire more immigration court judges to clear backlogs and speed up pending trials. Additionally, they intend to increase temporary work visas for immigrant workers.

Furthermore, they’ve engaged task forces to prevent migrant smuggling and human trafficking operations and discourage irregular migration. And encouraged an ongoing discourse with governments to prosecute people involved in smuggling migrants, human trafficking.

Lastly, they continue to remind Congress to make reforms to the U.S. immigration laws as it has been decades since there have been any significant changes made to the United States immigration system.

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