We hear so much from both sides of the political spectrum about illegal immigration, that the whole program of legal immigration gets somewhat buried.  We present here a synopsis of how the legal U.S. immigration system works from information provided by the American Immigration Council.

U.S. immigration law is very complex, and there is much confusion as to how it works.  The Immigration and Naturalization Act (INA), the body of law governing current immigration policy, provides for an annual worldwide limit of 675,000 permanent immigrants, with certain exceptions for close family members.  Congress and the president determine a separate number for refugee admissions.  Immigration to the United States is based upon the following principles:  the reunification of families, admitting immigrants with skills that are valuable to the U.S. economy, protecting refugees, and promoting diversity.

  1. Family-Based Immigration

Family unification is an important principle governing immigration policy.  The family-based immigration category allows U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents (LPRs) to bring certain family members to the United States.  There are 480,000 family-based visas available every year.  Family-based immigrants are admitted to the U.S. either as immediate relatives of U.S. citizens or through the family preference system.

There is no numerical limit on visas available for immediate relatives, but petitioners must meet certain age and financial requirements.  Immediate relatives are:

  • spouses of U.S. citizens
  • unmarried minor children of U.S. citizens (under 21 years old)
  • parents of U.S. citizens (petitioner must be at least 21 years old to petition for a parent)

There are also a limited number of visas available every year under the family preference system, and petitioners must meet certain age and financial requirements.  The preference system includes:

  • adult children (married or unmarried) and brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens (petitioner must be at least 21 years old to petition for a sibling)
  • spouses and unmarried children (minor and adult) of LPRs

In order to balance the overall number of immigrants arriving based on family relationships, Congress established a complicated system for calculating the available number of family preference visas for any given year.  The number of family preference visas is determined by subtracting from 480,000 the number of immediate relative visas issued during the previous year and the number of aliens “paroled” into the U.S. during the previous year.  Any unused employment preference immigrant numbers from the preceding year are then added to this sum to establish the number of visas that remain for allocation through the preference system.  By law, however, the number of family-based visas allocated through the preference system may not be lower than 226,000.  Consequently, the total number of family-based visas often exceeds 480,000.

In order to be admitted through the family preference system, a U.S. citizen or LPR sponsor must petition for an individual relative (and establish the legitimacy of the relationship), meet minimum income requirements, and sign an affidavit of support stating that they will be financially responsible for their family member(s) upon arrival in the United States.

  1. Employment-Based Immigration

Temporary Visas

The United States provides various ways for immigrants with valuable skills to come to the United States on either a permanent or a temporary basis.  There are more than 20 types of visas for temporary nonimmigrant workers.  These include L visas for intracompany transfers; P visas for athletes, entertainers and skilled performers; R visas for religious workers; A visas for diplomatic employees; O visas for workers of extraordinary ability; and a variety of H visas for both highly-skilled and lesser-skilled employment.  Many of the temporary worker categories are for highly skilled workers, and immigrants with a temporary work visa are normally sponsored by a specific employer for a specific job offer.  Many of the temporary visa categories have numerical limitations as well.

Permanent Immigration

Permanent employment-based immigration is set at a rate of 140,000 visas per year, and these are divided into five preferences, each subject to numerical limitations.  The following table summarizes the employment-based preference system:

Permanent Employment-Based Preference System

Eligibility Yearly Numerical
1 “People of extraordinary ability” in the arts, science, education, business, or athletics; outstanding professors and researchers; some multinational executives 40,000*
2 Members of the professions holding advanced degrees, or people of exceptional abilities in the arts, science, or business 40,000**
3 Skilled workers with at least two years of training or experience; professionals with college degrees; or “other” workers for unskilled labor that is not temporary or seasonal 40,000***

“Other” unskilled laborers restricted to 5,000

4 Certain “special immigrants,” including religious workers, employees of U.S. foreign service posts, former U.S. government employees and other classes of aliens 10,000
5 People who will invest $500,000 to $1 million in a job-creating enterprise that employee at least 10 full-time U.S. workers 10,000
*Plus any unused visas from the 4th and 5th preferences

**Plus any unused visas from the 1st preference

***Plus any unused visas from the 1st and 2nd preferences

Worldwide level of employment-based immigrants:  140,000 for principal applicants and their dependents

Per Country Ceilings

In addition to the numerical limits placed upon the various immigration preferences, the INA also places a limit on how many immigrants can come to the United States from any one country.  Currently, no group of permanent immigrants (family-based and employment-based) from a single country can exceed 7% of the total amount of people immigrating to the United States in a single year.  This is not a quota that is set aside to ensure that certain nationalities make up 7% of immigrants, but rather a limit that is set to prevent any immigrant group from dominating immigration patterns to the United States.

Next month we’ll finish the facts on legal immigration with a discussion of refugees and asylum seekers, the diversity visa program, humanitarian relief and obtaining U.S. citizenship.


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