Immigration to the United States is a highly regulated and tightly controlled system that serves the national interest. Through the legal immigration system, U.S. citizens and Lawful Permanent Residents (LPR) unite with close family members, and U.S. employers gain access to workers with specific skills necessary to strengthen the U.S. economy. Through legal immigration, the U.S. also fulfills its longstanding tradition of protecting a fraction of the world’s refugees.
A legal immigrant is a foreign-born individual who has been admitted to reside in the United States as a Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR). LPRs are given immigrant visas, commonly referred to as “Green Cards.” Non-immigrants are foreign-born individuals who are permitted to enter the United States for a limited period of time, and are given only Temporary (non-immigrant) Visas. Examples of non-immigrants are students, tourists, temporary workers, business executives, and diplomats.
By statute, Congress has placed a limit on the number of foreign-born individuals who are admitted to the United States annually as Family-based or Employment-based immigrants or as refugees. Section 201 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) sets an annual minimum family-sponsored preference limit of 226,000. The worldwide level for annual Employment-based preference immigrants is at least 140,000. Section 202 of INA sets the per-country limit for preference immigrants to be at 7% of the total annual family-sponsored and employment-based preference limits, i.e., 25,620. The dependent area limit is set at 2%, or 7,320.
Through Family-based immigration, a U.S. citizen or LPR can sponsor his or her close family members for permanent residence. A U.S. citizen can sponsor his or her spouse, parent (if the sponsor is over 21), children, and brothers and sisters. An LPR can sponsor his or her spouse, minor children, and adult unmarried children. As a result of recent changes in the law, all citizens or LPRs wishing to petition for a family member must have an income at least 125% of the federal poverty level and sign a legally enforceable affidavit to support their family member.
Through employment-based immigration, a U.S. employer can sponsor a foreign-born employee for permanent residence. There are five employment based categories. Typically, the employer must first demonstrate to the Department of Labor that there is no qualified U.S. worker available for the job for which an immigrant visa is being sought. In some cases, Green cards may be available through investment (to investors/entrepreneurs who are making an investment) in an enterprise that creates new U.S. jobs. There are categories where some individuals could self-petition. It is available for either “Aliens of Extraordinary Ability” or certain individuals applying for a “National Interest Waiver.” An individual seeking National Interest Waiver is exempt from the job offer and the labor certification if the exemption would be in the national interest.
There are special categories that may allow individuals (Afghan/Iraqi Translator, Broadcaster, International Organization Employee, Iraqi Who Assisted the U.S. Government, NATO-6 Non-immigrant, Panama Canal Employee, Physician National Interest Waiver, and Religious Worker) to get a green card based on a past or current job. For these categories, it requires filing Form I-360, Petition for Amerasian, Widow(er), or Special Immigrant. As a refugee or asylee, a person may gain permanent residence in the U.S. A person located outside the United States who seeks protection in the U.S. on the grounds that he or she faces persecution in his or her homeland can enter this country as a refugee. In order to be admitted to the U.S. as a refugee, the person must prove that he or she has a “well-founded fear of persecution” on the basis of at least one of the following internationally recognized grounds: race; religion; membership in a social group; political opinion; or national origin. Refugees generally apply for admission to the United States in refugee camps or at designated processing sites outside their home countries. In some instances, refugees may apply for protection from within their home countries (for example, Cuba, Vietnam, former Soviet Union). If accepted as a refugee, the person is sent to the U.S. and receives assistance through the “refugee resettlement program”. A person who is already in the United States and fears persecution if sent back to his or her home country may apply for asylum in the U.S. Like a refugee, an asylum applicant must prove that he or she has a “well-founded” fear of persecution based on one of the five enumerated grounds listed above. Once granted asylum, the person is called an “asylee.” In most cases, an individual must apply for asylum within one year of arriving in the U.S. Refugees and asylees may apply for permanent residence after one year in the U.S.