Cheat Sheet

So You Want To Immigrate to the United States

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

The United States, a nation of immigrants, has a love-hate relationship with newcomers. Despite its reputation as an international melting pot, only 7.9 percent of the country’s population was born overseas, compared with 22.7 percent of Australia’s, 18.5 percent of Switzerland’s, and 16.1 percent of Canada’s.

Not surprisingly, the immigration system is set up to benefit the United States–only a small percentage of the people who would like to come here are allowed in, and only a tiny fraction of the ones who make that cut are allowed to stay indefinitely. In the 1996 fiscal year, almost 23 million foreigners entered the United States on tourist visas, 418,117 on student visas, and 227,440 as temporary workers with extremely restricted temporary work visas (most are seasonal workers–only 65,000 people are allowed in annually as “persons in a specialty occupation”). In FY 1996, 915,900 people received an immigrant visa (a “green card”–it’s actually pink), which makes them eligible for permanent residence and most of the benefits of citizenship, with the important exception of the right to vote.

Who Gets a Green Card?
In 1996, 596,000 people–65 percent of all green-card recipients–were “family-sponsored immigrants.” About half were immediate relatives of U.S. citizens (spouses: 56 percent; parents: 22 percent; and children: 21 percent), and the rest were “family-sponsored preference immigrants”–spouses and children of alien residents, siblings (and their families) of naturalized citizens and their families, and adult sons and daughters (and their families) of naturalized citizens.

Homosexuality ceased to be grounds for exclusion from the United States in 1991, but since gay and lesbian couples cannot legally marry in this country, there is currently no legal way for them to benefit from family-preference laws.

Employment-based preferences account for an annual minimum of 140,000 entrants of whom a maximum of 10,000 may be unskilled workers. There are basically five categories of work-related “preferences”: skilled workers, priority workers (including “multinational executives or managers” and “outstanding professors or researchers”), “professionals with advanced degrees,” investors or employment creators, and unskilled workers.

Since 1991, there has been an annual lottery for “diversity” immigrants, designed to allow citizens of countries with low levels of emigration to the United States to jump the queue. (Such countries are currently defined as those with fewer than 50,000 emigrants to the United States in the previous five years.) The 1999 lottery, with 55,000 green cards up for grabs, closed Nov. 24, 1997. (This page provides more details.) The dates for next year’s diversity-visa lottery haven’t yet been determined.

Within these complex categories, there are national quotas to ensure that no country can take up more than 7 percent of the annual green-card allocation (though some family-reunification categories are exempted from this limit).

What’s the Difference Between a Resident Alien and a U.S. Citizen?
Until recently, millions of green-card holders were content to live in the United States as resident aliens. But of late, lawmakers have indicated a change of attitude toward legal immigrants, and this has affected the number of applications for citizenship. A 1996 federal welfare law separated rights from entitlements, denying legal immigrants access to government housing and welfare while still requiring them to pay taxes. This loss of benefits has almost certainly precipitated the jump from the long-standing annual average of 300,000 citizenship applications to 1.6 million in 1996. (Immigration and Naturalization Service estimates show that 5.8 million of the 10.5 million green-card holders resident in the United States in 1996 were eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship.)

I Won the Lottery. How Do I Become a Citizen?
Candidates for citizenship must 1) be 18 or older; 2) have resided in the United States continuously for five years–or three years if married to a U.S. citizen–(short absences are OK); 3) demonstrate the ability to speak English, and a basic knowledge of American history and government (click here to see if you pass the test); and 4) be of “good moral character.” Candidates must submit a set of fingerprints for review by the FBI.

The increase in citizenship applications has led to longer processing periods and, according to critics, to some immigrants being wrongly naturalized. In May 1997, an INS audit of the 1.1 million people who were granted citizenship between September 1995 and September 1996 revealed 4,946 cases “in which criminal arrest should have disqualified an applicant or in which an applicant lied about his or her criminal history.” A more recent press release from the INS suggests that the agency has made a “dramatic turnaround” as a result of new policies initiated last June.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

Evading the System
According to INS estimates, 300,000 illegal immigrants come to the United States each year, and there were 5 million illegal immigrants living in the country in 1996. About 2.1 million of this group are “nonimmigrant overstays,” that is, people who entered the country legally on a temporary basis and didn’t go home. Most illegal immigrants, an estimated 2.7 million, come from Mexico, but only 16 percent of Mexican illegal immigrants are overstays, compared with 26 percent of those from other parts of Central America and 91 percent from all other countries. The INS deported 111,794 “criminal and other illegal aliens” in 1997, and recent changes in the law, summarized here, establish new grounds for denying admission to the United States. For example, nonimmigrant overstays can now be denied readmission for up to 10 years.

Access to jobs attracts illegal immigrants. Although the INS negotiated its largest work-site settlement last year, when a Texas restaurant chain agreed to pay a $1.7-million fine for hiring and employing illegal immigrant workers, critics claim that Congress doesn’t do enough to punish employers who make extensive use of illegal labor. Unscrupulous employers see these workers as more manageable and less likely to complain. Despite regulations that punish employers who knowingly employ them, pressure from business groups like the National Federation of Independent Business and the National Restaurant Association scuttled an attempt to include computer verification of employee eligibility in the 1996 immigration bill.

What About Refugees?
A fact sheet prepared by the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration outlines the U.S. refugee policy. Around 120,000 refugees are allowed into the country each year if they flee their country “due to persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.” Recent changes in the law prohibit asylum applications from persons who have been in the United States for more than a year. Cuban pitchers are also offered refuge–unless they can get a better deal in the Bahamas, of course.