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How does the United States Immigration System Work?


Immigration is the process of moving to a new country or region with the intention of staying and living there. People may choose to immigrate for a variety of reasons, such as employment opportunities, to escape a violent conflict, environmental factors, educational purposes, or to reunite with family. The process of immigrating to the United States can be complicated and is often driven by a few key principles including uniting families, boosting the economy with skilled professionals, promoting diversity, and helping refugees.

The body of law governing U.S. immigration policy is called the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). The INA allows the United States to grant up to 675,000 permanent immigrant visas each year across various visa categories. On top of those 675,000 visas, the INA sets no limit on the annual admission of U.S. citizens’ spouses, parents, and children under the age of 21. In addition, each year the president is required to consult with Congress and set an annual number of refugees to be admitted to the United States through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.

The immigration system in the United States is complex and multifaceted, with various categories and pathways for individuals seeking to enter and reside in the country. Here's an overview of how the U.S. immigration system works:

Visa Categories

1. Nonimmigrant Visas- These are temporary visas for individuals who intend to visit the United States for a specific purpose, such as tourism, business, education, or employment. Common nonimmigrant visas include B-1/B-2 (tourism/business), F-1 (student), H-1B (temporary skilled workers), and L-1 (intracompany transferees).

2. Immigrant Visas- These are for individuals who plan to live permanently in the United States. Immigrant visas are often obtained through family-sponsored, employment-based, or diversity visa (DV) lottery programs.

Family-Sponsored Immigration

Family unification is an important principle governing U.S. immigration policy. The family-based immigration system allows U.S. citizens and Lawful Permanent Residents to bring certain family members to the United States. These relationships include spouses, children, parents, and siblings, with different preference categories and wait times. Family-based immigrants are admitted either as immediate relatives of U.S. citizens or through the family preference system. In order to be admitted through the family-based immigration system, a U.S. citizen or LPR sponsor must petition for an individual relative, establish the legitimacy of the relationship, meet minimum income requirements, and sign an affidavit of support stating that the sponsor will be financially responsible for the family member(s) upon arrival in the United States or adjustment to LPR status within the United States. The individual relative also must meet certain eligibility requirements that include submitting to a medical exam and obtaining required vaccinations (including a COVID-19 vaccination), an analysis of any immigration or criminal history, as well as demonstrating that they will not become primarily dependent on the government for subsistence.

Employment-Based Immigration

Employers can sponsor foreign workers for employment-based visas, such as the H-1B for skilled workers, EB-2 for individuals with advanced degrees or exceptional ability, and EB-3 for skilled workers and professionals. The process often involves labor certification and employer sponsorship.

Diversity Visa Lottery

The Diversity Visa (DV) lottery program allocates a limited number of immigrant visas to individuals from countries with low rates of immigration to the U.S. Participants are randomly selected for up to 50,000 people each year and if chosen, they can apply for an immigrant visa. To be eligible for a diversity visa, potential applicants from qualifying countries must have a high-school education (or its equivalent) or have, within the past five years, a minimum of two years working in a profession requiring at least two years of training or experience. Spouses and minor unmarried children of the principal applicant may also enter as derivatives.

Refugees and Asylum Seekers

Individuals who are fleeing persecution or have a well-founded fear of persecution in their home countries may seek asylum in the U.S. Refugees are individuals who are already outside the U.S. and are seeking resettlement. Asylum seekers apply for protection while inside the United States. Resettled refugees and those granted asylum are eligible to apply for a green card after one year.

Temporary Protected Status (TPS)

TPS is granted to individuals from countries facing certain temporary crises, such as armed conflict or natural disasters. It allows them to live and work in the U.S. temporarily. TPS is granted to a country for six, twelve, or eighteen months and can be extended beyond that if unsafe conditions in the country persist. TPS does not necessarily lead to LPR status or confer any other immigration status.

Green Cards

A green card, officially known as a Permanent Resident Card, grants foreign nationals the right to live and work in the United States indefinitely. It can be obtained through family sponsorship, employment, refugee/asylee status, and other special categories.


After holding a green card for a specific period (usually five years), eligible immigrants can apply for U.S. citizenship through a process known as naturalization. This involves passing a citizenship test and meeting other requirements.

Visa Waiver Program (VWP)

Citizens of certain countries can visit the U.S. for tourism or business purposes without obtaining a visa, under the Visa Waiver Program. They are allowed to stay for up to 90 days.

The U.S. immigration system is subject to change through legislation, executive orders, and administrative policies, so it's important to check with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) or consult an immigration attorney for the most up-to-date information and guidance if you're considering immigrating to the United States or seeking a visa.

We provide individuals, families, and employers with the legal representation they need tonavigate the process of a complex Immigration. For more information on how we can assist you,please visit our website at or email us at

Patricia Elizee is the managing partner of the Elizee Law Firm, an immigration law firm located at 1110 Brickell Avenue, Suite 315, Miami, Florida 33131. Phone 305-371-8846


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