What is "immigration"?
Immigration is the formal name for the procedure by which non-citizens enter the United States. People come to America from all corners of the world. Some come on vacation, to see the sights, to explore the country. They are called "tourists" in the immigration nomenclature. Others come for business purposes: to work on a specific assignment; to take a permanent job; to study and get certified in a particular profession. These people may enter the country on a work permit; a special visa; or a student visa. Finally, there are people who come to the United States to obtain citizenship. They may enter on a residency permit, and eventually gain status as a permanent resident, and ultimately as a citizen. Each of these categories is discussed below.
What is the regulatory agency involved with immigration issues?
The main agency is the Immigration and Naturalization Service, commonly called the "INS." The INS is a unit of the United States Department of Justice. It is responsible for enforcing the nation's immigration laws, which are found in Title 8 of the United States Code.
How does a person get permission to enter the United States?
The basic method is by way of a visa. In most cases, the American Embassy or Consulate in a foreign country will grant a visa to a foreign national of that country. The visa will be stamped in the person's passport, and it will allow entry into the United States at a border checkpoint or other controlled point of entry (an international airport in the United States, for example).
There is a program, called the Visa Waiver Pilot Program, which allows tourists from certain countries (for example, Canada, New Zealand and Japan, and many European countries) to enter the U.S. and travel here for up to 90 days merely by possessing a valid passport. No specific visa is necessary.
Are there different types of visas?
Yes. There is an "immigrant visa" and a "non-immigrant visa." The names are fairly good descriptions of each visa. The "immigrant visa" is designed for those persons who wish to enter the United States for the purpose of making this country their permanent home. Immigrant visas are strictly regulated and are subject to a specific numerical quota. This means that only so many immigrant visas are issued each year. Once the quota is filled, a "waiting list" is created for applicants, and it can substantially delay a person's valid entry into the country.
A "non-immigrant visa" is for persons entering the country for defined periods of time. They do not wish to become permanent residents or citizens, but rather, are coming into the United States for defined periods of time. A "B-1" visa allows entry for a specific time period for business purposes. A "B-2" visa, in contrast, allows a person to enter the country for a specific period of time for pleasure. If such a visas are granted, you can enter the country, but your activities are restricted to a defined time period, and you must only engage in activities that are consistent with being a visitor.
If you enter under a "B-2" visa, you cannot engage in business, but you can sightsee; visit friends and relatives, and tour the land. You would not be permitted to enroll in a school or perform work, because such activities are inconsistent with a B-2 visa. Once you enter the country on a B-2 visa, however, it is possible to change categories and shift your status to another category, such as a student visa, provided that you meet the legal requirements to do so. Sometimes, however, a shift in status is viewed with suspicion by the INS, which is vigilant to make sure that the immigration rules are followed. If you enter the country on a B-2 visa, you will be issued a small card, called an I-94 form. It is a record of your arrival and departure. The INS will mark your date of admission on the card and your maximum period of entry/stay in the United States. Usually the initial period will be 6 months or less. You will be able to get an extension of up to one year, but after that time you will have to leave or obtain a different type of visa.
If the INS believes you are using a temporary visa as a means of establishing a permanent residence in the United States, you may lose your rights under the visa. Visas are for temporary and defined visits; they are not for permanent residency.
How do I bring my relatives to the United States to live permanently?
There are two basic answers, depending upon your own personal status. If you are a United States citizen, you are allowed to sponsor certain relatives for entry into the country. The relatives include:
Your spouse (husband or wife)
Your children (son/daughter)
Your parents, brothers and sisters
Bear in mind that there is no age limitation regarding sponsored children. You must be over 21 years of age in order to sponsor your parents, siblings, or an unmarried child. You can also sponsor a fiancee.
How do I become a United States citizen?
The basic requirements are as follows:
- You must have been admitted to lawful permanent residence for 5 years. The requirement is 3 years if you hold a Green Card that was obtained through marriage to a United States citizen. You must also have maintained residence here for those same time periods.
- You must be at least 18 years old.
- You must be physically present in the United States for half of the time listed above (that is, if the residency requirement is 5 years, you must have been physically within the United States border for 2? years.
- You must be an actual physical resident of the state in which the petition is filed for at least three months immediately before submitting the application.
You must be a person of good moral character for the entire period of your residency.
- You must demonstrate an elementary level of English proficiency (reading, writing, speaking, understanding).
- You must have knowledge and understanding of the fundamentals of United States history and government.
Although there are some exceptions to these requirements for veterans, current members of the military, the disabled, foreign spouses married to non-resident citizens, and permanent residents who work for companies that promote American interests abroad, these are the basic rules.
How does the process work and what does it cost?
To become a citizen, you first must submit an Application for Naturalization, technically known as INS form N-400. There is a $225 application fee. You must also submit photos and a fingerprint card. The fingerprinting fee is an additional $25. You are allowed to submit the application 3 months before meeting the residency requirement.
You will be interviewed by an INS officer. The FBI will conduct a background check to determine if you have committed a crime that would disqualify you from citizenship. If meet all the requirements and are approved, you then take an Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America.
How long does it take to become a citizen?
It is difficult to give an across-the-board answer. The wait is longer in areas with heavy immigrant populations. In busy areas, it is not unusual to wait several years before an application is finally approved.
What is a "Green Card"?
First of all, the name is out of date. The card in question is no longer green, but can be white, or pink, or multi-colored. The important thing to remember is that this document signifies permission to become a permanent resident of the United States. It is commonly referred to as a "Green Card" because, prior to 1978, immigrant visas were green.
If I have a Green Card, can I leave the United States and return home?
Yes, but be careful. The whole point of a Green Card is that it signifies your intent to make the United States your permanent home. The law allows you to travel, and to use the Green Card as a "reentry document." You are allowed to stay abroad for up to six (6) months. IF you exceed that limit, there is a rebuttable presumption that you intended to abandon your residence here. And if you stay out of the country for over a year, you can lose your right to use the Green Card to reenter the United States. If you have a Green Card and intend to leave the country for over a year, it is advisable to obtain a "reentry permit," which upon issuance will indicate that the INS has accepted your reason(s) for leaving the country and recognizes that the extended absence from the country is a temporary matter.
What sort of visa to you need in order to work in the United States?
The short answer is that you need a "working visa" or some form of work authorization card. Some non-immigrant visas confer permission to work, but even if you don't have one of those, you may nevertheless be eligible to obtain permission to work provided you have a particular skill that a particular employer needs and desires that you perform. Although the procedure can be cumbersome, a qualified immigration attorney can assist you and your potential employer in obtaining the appropriate work visa.
Sometimes, foreign students desire to work in the United States, either during break periods or other times. If this is your desire, you should check with your school's foreign student advisor before proceeding further.
If you have a college degree and desire to work in the United States, you may apply for a non-immigrant visa, commonly known as a "H-1B visa." This allows temporary employment of aliens in what are referred to as "specialty occupations." A specialty occupation is defined by the INS as a job or profession that requires the application and use of specialized knowledge. In order to qualify, you will need a sponsoring employer; the job in question must require a bachelor's degree or higher; and you must possess the appropriate degree. You stay in the country cannot exceed six (6) years. Although you may well need the assistance of an immigration lawyer, there are many professional occupations that can qualify, such as accountants, engineers, and so forth.
What if I work for a foreign company? Can they transfer me to work in the United States for a related company located here?
Yes, but there are some limitations. You must be a manager or executive working for an American branch office, affiliate company or subsidiary. The particular type of visa is called an L-1A visa. To qualify, the basic requirements are: You must have worked for the foreign company for at least 1 year out of the last 3 years; you must be coming to work for a United States branch operation; and both the U.S. division and the foreign company must continue in business during your stay here. A manager/executive entering the country on an L-1A visa is limited to a seven (7) year stay, but there is a major tactical advantage from entering under this type of visa. You can apply for a Green Card (permission to become a permanent resident) without having to go through a complex labor certification.
Why do I need an immigration lawyer?
Because the laws are very specific and many times it takes a good lawyer to properly navigate through the system. You want to be applying for the correct type of visa, and you want the application presented in the proper form. Competent immigration attorneys "know the ropes," and they can provide invaluable assistance in this very important endeavor of obtaining permission to enter the country, whether it be for the purpose of study, work or to become a United States citizen.