The process of immigrating into the United States can be challenging and confusing. There are numerous laws and federal agencies to contend with, and the regulations that affect both legal and undocumented immigrants are constantly changing. Depending on the issue, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, or the Department of State may be involved.
An experienced immigration lawyer facilitates individuals on their path to attaining temporary or permanent residency in the United States. The timing of paperwork in immigration cases is critical, so it’s important to choose counsel who will expedite the collection of needed documents and ensure they are filed promptly and correctly.
Common Immigration Issues
- Permanent residency
- Residency through family, employment, or investment
- Entering as a refugee or asylum seeker
- Working in the U.S. as a foreign national
- Hiring foreign workers
- Crossing the border
- Types of visas and getting a visa
- Getting a green card
- Helping a family member get legal status
- The Diversity Visa Lottery Program
- Deportation and removal
- Military service and immigration
- Becoming a citizen
Also known as a permanent resident card, a green card is a legal document which establishes that a non-citizen has permanent residency in the U.S. Green card holders are called Lawful Permanent Residents. They can lose that status if they are convicted of a crime (especially if it is a serious crime like a violent felony).
A green card can be applied for on the basis of several eligibility categories, including family relationships, employment, status as a refugee or a victim of human trafficking or abuse, and others. A lawyer is not required to apply for a green card, but an experienced immigration lawyer greatly increases the chance of success by negotiating with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) bureau and ensuring all documentation is properly prepared and filed.
A visa is a permit that gives individuals the right to enter another country for a specific duration and purpose. They are typically stamped or added to a passport. The U.S. government has many different types of visas meant to accommodate visitors, permanent residents, and guest workers.
H1-B Visa for Skilled Workers
Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, the primary law that authorizes U.S. immigration policy, U.S. businesses are permitted to hire foreign workers in specialty occupations for a period of three years (extendable to six years, after which the worker may reapply for a new visa).
Whether a foreigner receives an H1-B visa, giving them access to the U.S. job market, depends on several factors and eligibility requirements, such as their skills, education, and experience in their field. Under federal law, their spouses and children may be entitled to accompany them to the U.S. while their visa is active.
The types of roles often associated with H1-B visas include:
- Healthcare workers (e.g., doctors, nurses, medical technicians)
- High-tech workers (e.g., engineers)
Only a certain number of H1-B visas are issued in any given year. The current limit is 65,000. However, workers with advanced degrees (such as a U.S. master’s degree or higher) are exempt from this limit, and there are other exceptions that an immigration lawyer can leverage to help obtain an H1-B visa for a foreign worker — especially if the applicant is seeking employment in a field where the U.S. pool of workers is consistently insufficient to meet market demand.
L-1 Visa for Foreign Employees of U.S. Companies
Foreign nationals who are employed by a U.S. company in their home country can apply for a non-immigrant transfer to a U.S.-based office of that company. The maximum length of time a foreign worker can stay in the U.S. with an L-1 visa depends on the country they are coming from and cannot exceed seven years.
J-1 Visa for Academics
Foreign college and university students, professors, and researchers wishing to pursue academic goals in the U.S. can apply for admittance to nonimmigrant Exchange Visitor Programs. A J-1 visa entitles foreigners to temporarily join American educational and cultural institutions and stay in the country for the length of their exchange program.
There are other types of visas specifically for students, including the F-1 (for university, high school, private elementary school, or seminary students) and M-1 (for vocational and technical school students).
If a foreign academic is also working in the U.S., such as a college professor, they can potentially also apply for an H1-B visa. If they are internationally recognized for their achievements in their field, they may also apply for an O visa, which is a visa for non-citizens who have demonstrated exceptional ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics.
If a foreign citizen wishes to live permanently in the United States, they need an immigrant visa, which requires sponsorship by an immediate relative over the age of 21 who is either a U.S. citizen or a Lawful Permanent Resident (a green-card holder).
There are two types of family visas:
- Immediate Relative (e.g., spouse, child, parent)
- Family Preference (e.g., cousin, aunt or uncle, grandparent)
The U.S. government does not cap applications for immediate relative family visas but does for family preference visas. Any U.S. citizen can petition for an immigrant visa for their spouse, child, parent, or sibling who is a foreign national, but green-card holders can only do so for a spouse or unmarried child.
E-B5 Visa for Investors
Foreign entrepreneurs and investors can apply for a green card, giving them (and their spouses and unmarried children under the age of 21) the right to live and work permanently in the U.S. if they can show that they have made substantial investments in a U.S. business and that they plan to create and retain at least ten permanent full-time jobs for U.S. workers.
Diversity Immigrant Visa
Also known as the green card lottery, the U.S Diversity Immigrant Visa program run by the Department of State makes 55,000 immigrant visas available annually via a lottery. The program specifically seeks applications from countries with low numbers of immigrants in the previous five years.
To enter the lottery, applicants must have been born in an eligible country (or be the child or spouse of someone who was) and must have completed at least a high school education or have at least two years of experience in a field that requires two years of training.
The process by which immigrants become U.S. citizens is called naturalization.
Before applying for U.S. citizenship, foreigners must have been issued a green card and be admitted as permanent residents and meet several other eligibility requirements:
- Be at least 18 years old
- Continuously reside in the country for at least five years (three years if married to a U.S. citizen)
- Have a continuous physical residence in the U.S.
- Be able to read, write, and speak basic English
- Demonstrate good moral character, knowledge of U.S. history and government, and loyalty to the Constitution
Asylum and Deportation
Refugees, displaced people who have fled their home country for fear of persecution, violence, or other dangers, can ask for asylum in the U.S. if they are already in the country or near its borders. There are two main types of asylum in the U.S.:
Request by refugees not currently in removal proceedings, which is a legal process which determines whether an individual should be deported. If their request is denied by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, they will be referred to removal proceedings.
A refugee who has already been referred to removal proceedings can apply for defensive asylum from the Department of Justice. Their application will be evaluated by an immigration judge at the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR).
Removal proceedings are initiated anytime a non-citizen is taken into custody by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and found to lack proper legal documentation proving their lawful status in the country. Whether applying for asylum affirmatively or defensively, applicants have a right to a lawyer. However, unlike in criminal matters, they do not have the right to a free public defender.
An immigration lawyer can help applicants for asylum and individuals facing deportation fight the charges against them, strengthen their case for asylum, and apply for a removal order to be canceled.