Two basic paths exist for obtaining legal immigration status in the United States. A foreign-national can either apply for a temporary visa or permanent residence (commonly known as a “green card”). A temporary visa allows an individual to live for a certain number of years in the United States for a specified purpose. In contrast, permanent residency allows an individual to live in the United States on an ongoing basis with few restrictions. Once an individual has been a permanent resident for some time, she/he can apply to become a U.S. citizen.
There is a wide range of temporary visas, used for many different purposes, with the validity periods ranging from a few days to several years. A visa may be granted to the principal applicant as well as to his/her spouse and minor children. The different temporary visa categories are classified by a letter. The following is a brief list of the visa categories, to give you an idea:
An experienced immigration attorney can help you determine which temporary visa classification would best suit your goals and craft the application to ensure the highest chance of success.
Permanent residence is far more desirable than a temporary visa. It is more advantageous because it allows a foreign-national to live in the United States indefinitely, does not require constant renewal of a visa, and provides automatic work authorization. There are four main ways of obtaining permanent residence: through a family member, employment, asylum, or cancellation of removal in Immigration Court.
Permanent residence through a family member requires a relationship to a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. You are eligible to apply for permanent residence if you have a U.S. citizen spouse, parent, siblings, or child who is 21 years or older. You are also eligible for permanent residence if you have a permanent resident spouse or if you are unmarried and have a permanent resident parent. Often, obtaining permanent residence through a family member is the fastest and most secure route.
The most common route for obtaining permanent residence through employment is by obtaining a labor certification. The U.S. Department of Labor grants a labor certification when a company can prove that there are no qualified U.S. workers available to fill the foreign-national’s position. The labor certification process was dramatically changed in December 2004. It is now significantly more streamlined and the Department of Labor will issue a decision in 45 to 60 days, as opposed to the two to five year wait required under the former system.
Permanent residence through employment is also available for professors, researchers, persons who have served as an executive or manager at an international company, persons who have extraordinary skills that are recognized nationally or internationally, or persons who can demonstrate they will benefit the U.S.’s national interest.
Persons who fear they will be persecuted if sent back to their home country may apply for asylum and subsequently a green card. You must prove that you have a “well-founded” fear of persecution based on your race, religion, sexual orientation, membership in a social group, political opinion, or your national origin. Persons from countries with known human rights abuses and intolerant governments have better chances of receiving asylum. An application includes a lengthy form, declarations, and reports on the conditions in your home country. In most cases, you must apply for asylum within one year of arriving in the United States, unless you can justify the delay.
Cancellation of Removal
Persons in removal proceedings, also known as deportation hearings, may apply in court for a special pardon to receive a green card and stay in the United States. For individuals who have never had a green card, the critical element is proving that you have a spouse, parent, or child who is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident who would suffer extreme hardship if you were not allowed to stay the United States. You must also prove that you have lived in the United States for 10 years and have otherwise obeyed the laws.
With the advice of an immigration attorney, you will know which of these routes is best for you, least expensive, and fastest. Further, an immigration attorney will write the applications and prepare the documentation necessary to prove your case, based on the subtle nuances of the office at which you apply or the Immigration Judge before whom you will appear. He or she will also represent you at your interview with the Immigration Service or at your hearing in Immigration Court.
The most secure immigration status you can have is that of a U.S. citizen. As described above, a temporary visa is restrictive. A green card can be taken away if you take a lengthy trip outside the U.S. or commit certain acts. In contrast, U.S. citizenship affords many advantages, such as ease of travel with a U.S. passport, the right to vote, and the option to apply for certain relatives to move to the U.S. more quickly.
In order to apply for citizenship, generally you must already have a green card for three or five years. In certain circumstances, you can apply for citizenship as soon as you receive your green card. Other requirements include having lived in the United States for certain amount of time, having English skills, and having knowledge of U.S. history (the last two requirements can be waived).
Living in the United States legally or becoming a U.S. citizen is a dream for many. Beginning with an immigration application, you can embark on your journey to realize these dreams and aspirations.
Disclaimer: This publication serves only as general information and is not a substitute for consultation with an attorney who can assess the specifics of a case and inform of the constant changes in law and policy. No attorney-client relationship is formed by the transmission of this information.