A primer on the American immigration system

"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to be free." We all know these words as being part of the poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty on Ellis Island. Many of us have seen them in person as we have visited Liberty State Park and toured the statue itself. Since the events of September 11, 2001, the Statue has become a pilgrimage of sorts for many, and "Lady Liberty" is a more powerful symbol than ever before, shining as a beacon to illustrate the many virtues that make our country great.

The history of our immigration system

The poem mentioned above - titled "The New Colossus" by famous poet Emma Lazarus - personifies the "melting pot" philosophy that has set America apart since its first days. That poem, and the Statue itself, signifies a spirit of inclusion and welcome to those looking to start a new life in America.

The idea of coming to America to begin again is one shared by thousands of people around the world. Because our country was founded by immigrants who came here looking for a better life, we have always had a liberal immigration system. Liberal as it may be, however, the process of entering America via one of several legal tools like visas, asylum or consular waivers is a complicated one. Immigration involves copious amounts of paperwork, and it is vital that all the proverbial "I's" are dotted, and the "T's" crossed.

Visas: an overview

A prospective immigrant can be granted entrée to our country on a temporary basis - often through one of the 20 types of employment-based visas - or can come here forever by seeking permanent residence, naturalization or citizenship.

The most common immigration tool used for entrance into America is the visa. Broadly speaking, there are two types of visas available: nonimmigrant visas, for those seeking temporary access to our country, and immigrant visas, for those wishing to relocate here on a permanent basis. Within the broader heading of "visas," though, there are many categories of visas available for employment, to reunite families, to obtain an education, to perform research, to receive medical treatment, to teach, to cover stories for foreign media outlets and for other reasons as well.

In addition, there are visas that celebrate unique talents in various fields, including sciences like mathematics, medicine, engineering and technology as well as the arts like athletics, acting, performing and writing at both the amateur and professional levels. There are even visas aimed specifically at foreign nationals who wish to come into our country while doing business with international organizations like NATO. To learn more about different categories of visas, visit the U.S. Department of State's website here.

Do keep in mind that not everyone qualifies for entry through a visa, however, and there are numerical limits on the number of visas offered annually, whether they are family-oriented in nature or business-related.

Asylum and refugee status - a way of offering safe haven to the persecuted

Sadly, in nations around the world, people are persecuted for their religious beliefs, race, ethnicity, gender, national origin or affiliation with a particular political party or stance. Depending on the unique circumstances involved, it might be possible for those who have faced such persecution - and those who have a reasonable fear that they may face similar hardship in the future - to seek asylum within the United States.

Asylum basically means that our country will accept an immigrant outside the normal immigration channels (like seeking a visa) due to concerns for his or her safety. Those granted asylum are given conditional, indefinite entrée into America, and can apply for "green card"/permanent resident status after one year.

Slightly different from seeking asylum is being declared a "refugee." Refugees share some similarities, in that they, too, may face persecution or fear persecution based on their race, religion, ethnicity, political affiliation, gender or social ties, but refugees must also be essentially barred from returning to their homes and be "of special humanitarian concern to the United States." Refugees commonly come from war zones; in recent years, conflicts in Somalia, Syria, Egypt and the Middle East have all created the need for refugees to come to America. Refugees need to apply for permanent resident status after one year of entering the U.S., or they may run the risk of being sent back to their country of origin via a deportation proceeding or "removal hearing."

Ineligibilities

There are many reasons that an immigration application would be denied, known in immigration law terminology as "ineligibilities." These include:

  • Improper completion of application forms
  • Not furnishing required supporting documentation
  • Having convictions for crimes of "moral turpitude" (including fraud and larceny, as well as crimes with an underlying "evil" intent such as arson, blackmail, burglary, malicious destruction of property, murder, several types of assault, kidnapping, rape, and others)
  • Having spent more than five years incarcerated for one or more offenses
  • Misrepresenting information supplied as part of the visa application
  • Previously remaining in the U.S. longer than the period allowed by a prior visa or waiver
  • Failing to demonstrate adequate financial support in America (if the application is for a type of visa or waiver that requires such proof)
  • Health-related grounds (such as being diagnosed with a communicable disease that has "public health significance," being a known drug abuser, or failing to undergo or provide proof of vaccination against certain communicable diseases like measles, polio, mumps, tetanus and others)
  • Having committed terrorist activity, are reasonably suspected of having committed such activity or are members of terrorist organizations that perform such activity
  • Being likely to "become a public charge" (i.e. need welfare assistance provided by the government)
  • Having been previously removed (i.e. deported) from America in the past five years for a first-time offense or in the past 20 years for any subsequent offense

Seeking help in this complex system

Clearly, there is much, much more to learn about the immigration system than can be detailed in a single document. If you want to come to America for business opportunities, get a better education or to advance your skills - or you are already in our country and would like to bring over loved ones in order to reunite your family - you could find the immigration process very complicated and overwhelming should you try to go it alone. Add in possible language barriers and cultural differences, and the system could be virtually impossible to navigate on your own; having an experienced immigration law attorney by your side will make the process less stressful and could give you a statistically better chance of having your application granted.