A Cheat Sheet… On the US Immigration Process

Posted by on Apr 19, 2013

A born and bred Brit, I admit that I have a limited understanding of the UK’s immigration process – I’ve never needed to know the specifics. Since moving to America, I’ve realised that unsurprisingly many Americans have similar knowledge gaps about their own system. Fellow “pundits” on cable TV news shows have asked me for mini tutorials about the topic. Many of the lovely people who bother to follow me on Twitter thought that when I received my Green Card it meant I’d become an American citizen. With the Boston suspects today, the way in which foreigners can settle in the US is once again front and centre of what I’ve discovered is a conversation that too easily confuses.

So back to basics. Although the US immigration process is incredibly complex, for foreigners who relocate to the Land of the Free, it essentially involves three stages and they progress through each one in turn.

The first step is the Nonimmigrant visa. There’s a variety of these – from the student to a diverse range of work visas. As we keep hearing, there are flaws in the system. The Obama administration recently announced that the quota for this year’s H1B visa, the temporary work permit for skilled foreign workers, had been filled within five days. Meanwhile, there are around 11 million people in the US who don’t have a valid visa at all.

Once you’ve been in the US on a non-immigrant visa for usually at least three years, there is a possibility that you qualify to become a Legal Permanent Resident, i.e. can apply for a Green Card. Again, there are a number of different types. The process to get one is expensive and thorough – mine included a medical examination and in-person interviews, along with submitting a portfolio of my work that ran to several hundred pages. It’s worth noting that once you become a Legal Permanent Resident, the IRS has its hooks in you forever, although you can’t vote. Taxation without representation indeed.

Finally, after at least five years of living in the US with a Green Card, you can apply for the privilege of American citizenship, whereupon you can vote if you so choose.

The US immigration process is rigorous and lengthy – as it should be. It is of great credit to America when the shortcomings of the system are acknowledged and attempts made to address them. Too many highly skilled workers, people whom the IRS would benefit greatly from having on their books for the rest of their lives, struggle just to get US work visas, let alone manage to upgrade them to Green Cards.

As for the 11 million people living in America without the correct paperwork? If they were brought here as children, it seems morally right that they should be eligible for a path to citizenship. Perhaps the endless debate swirling around what is fair to those who arrived as adults suggests it would be far less emotive to give them a path to legal permanent residency and stop it there. For although to live in America is a long and difficult journey, it is an honour that around one million people legally manage to embark on and succeed in every year.