The Basics Of U.S. Immigration Law

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Moving to the U.S. isn’t as complex when you understand the basics of immigration law and how to follow it. The law encompasses immigration situations surrounding moving to the U.S. on a permanent or temporary basis. U.S. legal immigration systems are woven around the laws enacted in 1965 and 1990.

You must understand how the system works and what laws guide moving to the U.S. or immigrants living there. This will enable an easier transition into the country. Many immigrants work with immigration lawyers to handle the different stages and processes.

It’s a great idea, and highly recommended, but knowing the basics will help you understand which part applies to you so you can act accordingly. This article contains U.S. immigration law basics you should know about, whether they apply to you or not.

Immigration Law Basics

First, you should understand that U.S. immigration laws are based on certain principles. These include:

  • The reunification of families
  • Protecting refugees
  • Promoting diversity
  • Admitting immigrants with valuable skills to the U.S. economy

The immigration law basics weave into these principles. With that said, here are immigration law basics:

Permanent immigration

Immigrants in the U.S. either have permanent or temporary immigration status. Informally, permanent residency is often called a green card. With permanent residency, you can stay in the U.S. indefinitely as long as you’re not convicted of a crime that warrants deportation.

Then, you can either apply for citizenship after five years or three if you marry a U.S. citizen. The U.S. gives out about 1 million green cards annually, which may vary from year to year. Half of the green cards are given to immigrants in the U.S. who are changing status, while the other half goes to people outside the country. In either case, it usually requires sponsorship from an employer or family member.

Since family reunification is one of the immigration principles, it accounts for 40% of permanent immigration in the U.S. The rest are either employment-based, humanitarian, or green card lottery (diversity visa) immigration.

Working in the U.S.

One hundred forty thousand green cards are available for the five employment-based immigration preferences in the U.S. yearly. These five preferences are part of the Immigration Act of 1990 and haven’t been adjusted. The first preference covers foreign nationals of extraordinary abilities, including researchers, professors, multinational executives, and managers, with a 40,040 numerical limit. Additionally, individuals interested in starting a business in the U.S. may explore the E-2 visa, which is another avenue for foreign entrepreneurs to work and invest in the country.

The second preference covers foreign nationals with advanced degrees and exceptional abilities in arts, sciences, or business with a 40,040 numerical limit. Furthermore, the third preference covers foreign nationals of skilled workers, professional workers, and other workers with 40,040 numerical limits, but not more than 10,000 allocated to other workers.

The fourth preference covers special immigrants like international organization employees, religious workers, and children who cannot reunite with their parents due to abuse, neglect, or abandonment with a 9,940 numerical limit. The last preference, the fifth one, covers immigrant investors with a 9,940 numerical limit.

Besides some investors and highly-skilled immigrants, employment-based immigrants need employers to sponsor their visas. Furthermore, the spouses and children of immigrants with employment-based visas count against the 140,000 cap.

Becoming a U.S. citizen

U.S. citizenship is a right, not a privilege, and you must meet certain requirements to acquire citizenship. You must be at least 18 years old by the time you apply and have been a permanent resident for three to five years. Furthermore, you must have continuously stayed and resided in the U.S. You must also be able to read, speak, and write basic English, demonstrate good behavior, and be willing to take an oath of allegiance.

Additionally, you should demonstrate loyalty to the principles of the constitution and knowledge and understanding of U.S. history and government.

Family-sponsored visa

You can go to the U.S. on a family-sponsored visa. For example, a U.S. citizen can sponsor their spouse, parents, siblings, or unmarried children under age 21 for a green card. This category has no numerical limit.

Furthermore, immigrants with green cards can sponsor their spouses and unmarried minors or adult children to join them in the U.S. There are 226,000 green cards reserved for other relatives.

Diversity visa

Beyond family or employment routes, the U.S. issues permanent residency to other immigrants under diversity visas, up to 50,000 per year. The U.S. conducts a lottery yearly for this category. More than 14 million applications are sent in yearly, and the U.S. randomly selects winners who are invited to apply for a green card after meeting certain requirements.

Refugees and asylees

Permanent residency immigration status is also available to individuals based on refugee and asylee status. Applicants must demonstrate their fear of persecution based on political opinions, race, religion, membership in a social group, or nationality.

Only people already in the U.S. can obtain asylum, while refugee status applies to those outside. Parties involved can stay in the U.S. and apply for a green card after a year.

Temporary immigration

Temporary residency is also available under immigration law. It admits many exchange visitors, foreign students, and workers under different visa categories.


This is for specialty occupations that allow temporary workers to work for two three-year work periods or longer while the party involved is in line for a green card.


This applies to foreign agricultural workers who can live in the U.S. for up to three years. Employers sponsoring these workers must prove that they’ve tried and failed to hire U.S. workers, provide housing, and pay a minimum specified wage.


This is usually granted for a short period but can be extended to three years and is available for nonagricultural temporary or seasonal jobs.


L visa applies to immigrants transferring for work from one branch to a U.S. branch and can stay up to seven years if an executive or manager and five years if they’re special knowledge employees.


O visa holders can stay in the U.S. for about three years and are available to people with extraordinary arts, sciences, business, or athletics abilities.

Visiting the U.S.

A visa isn’t necessary for eligible short-term visitors under the Visa Waiver Program. You can stay in the country for 90 days for business or pleasure if your country is under the program, but you must present an e-passport.


You should know the eligibility category your application falls to. Eligible or not, the U.S. government can reject your immigration application due to crimes, diseases, and other conditions.

Speak to an immigration attorney to know your options and for assistance to ensure a smooth move to the U.S.

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