Have you ever been in a situation where people start talking about immigration and you get uncomfortable talking about it? Have you ever felt uncomfortable talking about it because you have some formed opinions about immigration but don't feel confident in your bank of knowledge on the topic to have a discussion about it? Well, this article is for you and anyone who would like to get an understanding of how the immigration system generally works. The goal of this article is to just explain how things work and not to advocate for a specific political stance or policy. Also, this article should not be taken as legal advice or a roadmap on how to come to the U.S. because it will not take into account all the nuances an applicant or immigrant will face depending on their situation. The intent is only to describe the system so that no matter your political stance you can know what someone else is referring to when they use terms like citizenship, green card, permanent residency, visa, TPS, or DACA. You will have a general understanding of what the differences are from a green card and citizenship and DACA. I will also explain generally what kind of people these statuses refer to. If you or a family member need immigration law advice, please consult with an Immigration attorney.
Many times I have had a conversation with people who ask questions like: Why don't people wait in line? Or why don't people just apply for citizenship? What is the difference between green cards and permanent residency or citizenship? If you have these questions, great! Now if you are a citizen of the US and have never had to apply for any immigration status or benefit, then having these questions is completely normal because you have never had to apply for these immigration benefits. If you have had to apply for immigration benefits and wonder about these questions, it's completely normal because you probably only went through one segment of the immigration system.
So let's start talking about immigration. The first thing I would like for everyone to understand is that the immigration system is not a gate or a door. It is a filter.
It is a filter where people enter at one end and can end up with no status or some type of status on the other end. We will start by ranking immigration statuses or benefits in order from the highest benefit and protection to the lowest. Keep in mind that a status is an immigration term saying you have permission to be here. Benefit is saying that there is a benefit that you have been granted through the government.
- U.S. Citizenship
- Permanent residency/ Green cards (They are the same thing.)
- Asylum or Refugee (There is a difference between both.)
- DACA (No STATUS, meaning they are still undocumented.)
- Undocumented or Illegal immigrant
Let's start defining what a U.S citizen is. A U.S Citizen is someone who has the right to live here forever. They have the right to vote and enjoy all the privileges and protection the U.S. offers. Now how do you become a U.S. citizen? Well, one way is you are born in the U.S. Another way is by being born to U.S citizen parents. This means that if your mom and dad were on vacation in Mexico while pregnant with you and suddenly gave birth, then your parents can still ask for you to be a citizen. This also applies to adopted children who are adopted by U.S. citizens. The other way is to recieve citizenship is by applying for it. This is called Naturalization and only if you are a Permanent Resident (people with a green card) can you apply for Citizenship outside of what I already described above. To apply for citizenship as a permanent resident, you normally have to wait 3-5 years depending on how you became a permanent resident.
Permanent Resident/Green Card
The next immigration status below citizenship (and I’d like to emphasize that this status is the one right below citizenship) is permanent residency. As mentioned above, this status is what everyone talks about when they say green card. So when you hear someone say, “I have a green card,” they are saying that they are a permanent resident. A permanent resident has the permission to live in the United States. Notice that it is different then the right to live in the United States. They are not the same. That permission can be revoked for many reasons. A permanent resident has permission to live in the United States indefinitely but is given a card (which is normally called a green card) and it has an expiration date of 10 years. The green card holder must renew the card every ten years
Now, there are several ways to get a green card. There are two primary ways that I would like to discuss, and one is through work or employment opportunities; the other, family-based immigration. Now, family-based immigration is what some people like to refer to as chain migration. One thing I would like to clarify about chain migration is that, normally, it is discussed in politics. It seems like chain migration is something that can happen fast and you can bring over a bunch of people and they all of a sudden become permanent residents. That is not the case. It takes a very long time for people to become permanent residents, except for in very particular cases where it is the immediate family member of a U.S. citizen.
So, let’s talk about how you become a permanent resident. In terms of receiving permanent residency through employment, what happens is that the immigrant would have to find an employer that is willing to hire them and pay all the application fees. This could be in the thousands. They also have to certify that by hiring the immigrant that no American worker would be displaced. Meaning, an American wont lose their job because of the immigrant. Now keep in mind that this is an investment the company is making. It is a big risk because there is a limited amount of green cards available for employment-based immigration. Also, keep in mind businesses have to wait a long time, even years, for the immigrant to get a green card. The whole idea is to provide a way for companies to hire essential workers that are immigrants but also incentivize companies to hire Americans. Basically the immigrant better be worth the time and money for the company to spend on them getting a green card.
The other way the system provides someone to get a green card is family-based migration. Now, understand that a relative in the U.S. would have to ask the government to give the immigrant a green card. How fast the immigrant receives the green card is dependent on whether the relative of the immigrant is a U.S. Citizen or a permanent resident. If you are a spouse of a U.S. Citizen or an unmarried child of a U.S. citizen under the age of 21 or the parent of a U.S. citizen who is 21 or older, then you are given priority. This means no wait time other than the time that USCIS (the agency that processes applications) takes to process your application. This is the fastest way to get a green card. This process could take 6-12 months in the most basic case during non covid times. Some cases take longer because of the immigrant’s past immigration history.
If you are the unmarried child or spouse of a permanent resident, your relative can ask for you to get a green card, but you will have to wait in line for years before USCIS will process the application. This is where it gets complicated. Basically, depending on where the immigrant is from and how they are related to the green card holder, they are assigned a priority which results in how long they wait until their application is processed. Right now, the average wait time for some people is 23 years. Now, remember, this is dependent on where the immigrant is from. When discussing the application wait times this is what people refer to when they say it takes forever to apply for a green card. Please understand this. If you have a U.S. Citizen spouse or a parent or child above the age of 21 or even if you are undocumented, you can get a green card. But this does not mean that people in line that have been waiting 23 years will have to wait more. Why? Because they are going to wait anyways and not because of illegals getting a green card but because they are not related to a U.S. Citizen. They are related to a permanent resident. Thus, they have, by force, a wait time. Think about it this way, it works like a fast pass at Disney World, where if you are related to the U.S. Citizens, you can go on rides without waiting in line. Whether people use a fast pass or not while you are in line, you still have to wait in line for a long time if you don't have a fast pass. Why? Because the U.S. prioritizes the needs of the U.S. Citizens more than permanent residents who are immigrants.
If you are a visual person here is a chart of how to get a green card.
Refugee and Asylum
Refugee status and Asylum status work similarly to each other. The difference between them is where the person is located when they apply. Asylum is something an immigrant applies for when they are already here in the United States. Refugee status is when they apply outside the United States. Under United States law; a refugee is someone who is located outside of the United States; is of special humanitarian concern to the United States; demonstrates that they were persecuted or fear persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group; is not firmly resettled in another country and is admissible to the United States. Asylum is very much the same, but again, if the immigrant is already in the U.S., they are asking for asylum. Asylum and refugee status are more limited than a permanent resident. They can still receive financial support, but their status can be revoked as soon as their home country is no longer a threat. This means that a refugee or asylee can be removed from the country at any time. It is very hard to become a refugee or asylum because it is a very high bar that one must meet. Being a victim of violence is not enough. It has to be one of the categories I mentioned above, and one's home government must not be able to help resolve the situation. Very few immigrants out of the thousands that apply are given asylum or refugee status. If they are, then they are eligible to apply for a green card.
Now onto visas. Visas are different from anything explained before. They are just temporary permission to be in the country for a very limited amount of time. They can be given for tourism, employment, or educational purposes. There are few paths to a green card from a visa, and those are reserved for very few people (fiancé visas or people who invest a lot of money in the U.S). You are hardly given any financial benefit like assistance. They can expire quickly and not be renewed in some cases. Now, here is where we are seeing illegal immigration. It is estimated “that people who overstayed their visas accounted for 62 percent of the newly undocumented, while 38 percent had crossed a border illegally.” Because some visas are hard to renew, a lot of people end up overstaying their visa.
Moving on to TPS, which stands for Temporary Protected Status. All this means is that because your country is in so much turmoil, we will not deport you. Only if you are from the countries on the approved list can you apply, and you have to apply within a certain window. This is a status that will prevent your deportation. This will also allow you to work in the U.S. Downside is the list changes all the time. Usually presidents, depending on their political leaning, will add or remove countries from the list with just their say so. Once your country is removed from the list, you are out of luck.
Moving on to DACA which stands for Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals. Heard of the Dreamers? Or Obama's executive action to help Dreamers? Well, this is it… sort of. DACA is NOT a status. It does not prevent deportation like TPS does. Have you ever seen a lawyer or prosecutor show where, because the criminal deserved leniency, the prosecutor decided not to press charges? DACA is similar to that. All it says is that kids or young adults whose parents brought over illegally or made them overstay their visas when they were younger than 16 and were present in the U.S. in June of 2012 and have been continually present in the U.S. since 2007 will not be the focus of I.C.E (Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or the people who deport people in the U.S). So it's basically saying if you have DACA, we won’t focus on coming after you to deport you, unless you commit a crime, but other than that, we won't try to deport you. This does not guarantee protection. DACA recipients can be deported if caught. DACA recipients can work and pay taxes, but DACA provides no other benefit. To make this abundantly clear, if you have DACA, you are still undocumented or illegally in the U.S.
This leads us to the final section: undocumented. Most people do not have a path to a green card and when they don’t and cross the border illegally or overstay their visa, they are considered undocumented or without status. This means they are not allowed to work, be in the U.S., or receive any financial aid from the government. Ironically, they are allowed and encouraged to pay taxes. If an undocumented immigrant is caught and deported, they are banned from ever coming back to the country for ten years. If you are wondering why people don't just leave and come back legally, well there's your answer. They would have to wait ten years just to even apply if they even could.
The immigration system is a filter not a door. Unless one fits the categories given above for any status, chances are you are out of luck in coming to the U.S. Even if you do, you need the money to pay for the application fees (except for asylum or refugee applicants—we know they are probably poor so they don't pay). Even if you got the initial money, green card holders have to prove that their sponsor (the U.S citizen or permanent resident asking for them) can provide for them. If you want to sponsor someone to get their green card this means there is a certain amount of money you need to make in order to ask for someone to get a green card. Then you go through a rigorous background check. You then get fingerprinted which adds fees. Then and only then, if you pass, are you given an interview. If you pass the interview, which is used to prove your familial status or your story, then maybe it gets approved and you become a resident. But as explained above you need to wait twenty-something years to bring over family unless you become a U.S. Citizen which takes three to five years. Then you have to be able to afford to petition to bring people over. If you are not related directly to a U.S Citizen or a Permanent Resident, chances of you staying in the U.S. as a green card holder are really slim in the first place. The immigration system was designed to keep most people out and only allow certain people in.