Immigration has a long history in the U.S., and current laws make it a complicated process. Many people seek entry to the U.S. each year. It is important to understand the applicable laws, how to get a visa, how to apply for citizenship, and how to avoid deportation.

Immigration and Immigration Law

Immigration refers to entering a country to live there, usually permanently. The United States is a nation of immigrants from around the world, but the laws that regulate immigration have changed and evolved over the years.

The majority of laws governing immigration in the U.S. are at the federal level. States and local governments may have some laws and regulations regarding immigrants, but the federal laws are most important in addressing who may enter the country and how.

Immigration Laws

The first law that addressed the naturalization of immigrants was the Naturalization Act of 1790. Later, the federal government passed restrictive laws, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Subsequent laws introduced quotas for immigrants of specific races. The important modern immigration laws include:[1]

  • Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952. This eliminated immigration quotas based on race but allowed nationality-based quotas. The law also defines aliens in the U.S. as being documented or undocumented, or illegal.
  • Refugee Act of 1980. As outlined in this law, the term refugee refers to an immigrant in fear of persecution in their homeland.
  • Immigration Reform and Control Act. Passed in 1986, this law made it more difficult for illegal aliens to get work or to benefit from welfare. It did, however, provide amnesty to more aliens.
  • Immigration Marriage Fraud Amendments. Also passed in 1986, these amendments made it more difficult for people to fraudulently use marriage as a means to become a U.S. citizens.
  • Immigration Act of 1990. This law updated the Immigration and Nationality Act. It equalized quotas across all nations, encouraging more diverse immigration.
  • Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. This law changed the process of entry for immigrants. It requires inspection at U.S. customs, even for individuals with an immigrant visa.

Visas vs. Green Cards

A visa is a government endorsement allowing a visitor the enter the country. Non-immigrant visas are most common and are for visitors intending to return home. They outline how long a person can stay in the country and what they can and cannot do, for instance, work.

Immigrant visas are required for seeking permanent residence. They are assigned based on family in the U.S., employment, refugee or asylum status, or through a lottery. Filing for an immigrant visa signals that the individual intends to stay in the U.S.

A Green Card, officially a Permanent Resident Card, is a visa that grants an immigrant legal permanent resident status in the U.S. With a Green Card, an immigrant can work toward becoming a citizen.

Who Can Get an Immigrant Visa?

There are several ways to be eligible for an immigrant visa to the U.S. Not every option is a foolproof method. Individuals must meet certain requirements or even win a lottery to get a visa.

These are the categories of eligibility for immigrant visas:[2]

  1. Family Immigration
    Unifying families is one of the most important avenues to immigration in the U.S. Citizens of the U.S. can bring in spouses, unmarried minor children, and parents. In other situations, family gets preference but not a guaranteed visa: adult children and siblings of citizens and spouses and children of non-citizen permanent residents.
  2. Employment Immigration
    Visas are also available for workers. These include temporary and permanent visas, the latter of which is restricted to fewer than 140,000 per year. There are several categories of employment visas with different eligibility requirements and limits.
  3. Refugees and Asylees
    People fleeing persecution and seeking asylum represent another category of eligibility for visas. There are number limits on these immigrants. Several factors are considered when deciding who gets a visa, such as the degree of risk individuals face in their home country. Refugee status is for people yet to arrive in the U.S., while asylum is for those already here.
  4. Diversity Visas
    The Immigration Act of 1990 created the Diversity Visa lottery to increase immigration from countries with low entry numbers in the U.S. The U.S. offers 55,000 lottery visas each year. They are allocated randomly, through a lottery system, but there are requirements to apply: a high school education or at least two years working in a career that required training.

In addition to the limits for each of the visa types, immigration law places a per-country cap. The current cap limits immigrants from a single country to seven percent of the total number of immigrants for the year.

How Do I Become a Citizen?

Permanent residents can apply to become citizens in the U.S. You must file with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services and pass a test on U.S. history and government. Before applying, an immigrant who wants to become a U.S. citizen must meet specific eligibility criteria:

  • You must have a Green Card for at least five years or less if permanent residency came from asylum or marriage to a citizen.
  • You must have lived in the U.S. for five years before applying for citizenship. You cannot have spent a year or more living continuously outside of the U.S. during that time.
  • At least half of those five years you must have spent in the U.S. in total.
  • You must have lived in the state where filing for citizenship for at least three months.
  • You must be at least 18 years old.
  • You must have a clean criminal record and other factors that show moral character, such as paying taxes on time.
  • You must be willing to swear an oath of allegiance to the U.S. Constitution.

Immigration and Deportation

Immigrants face the risk of deportation for several reasons. The government can even deport legal immigrants. Illegal or undocumented aliens can be deported for not being legal. Legal immigrants can be deported for violating the terms of their visas, for instance, for taking a job or staying too long.

Legal immigrants may also face deportation if they commit certain crimes, particularly aggravated felonies, domestic violence, or a crime of moral turpitude. Immigrants may also be deported for drug crimes, marriage fraud, or smuggling aliens into the country.

Non-citizen immigrants do have rights when it comes to deportation. The government must give a valid reason, and the immigrant has a right to a lawyer, a hearing, and an appeal.

Immigration is a complicated process that can take time and never succeed for some people. For the best outcome and the best chance of success, work with an experienced immigration lawyer.

  1. Cornell Law School. Legal Information Institute. (n.d.). Immigration.
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  2. American Immigration Council. (2019, October 10). How the United States Immigration System Works.
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