Skip to main content

The Immigration Process

Immigration Laws & Rights

This article answers common questions about the immigration process in the U.S.

Learn the basics about immigration to the United States. Topics include what types of visas exist, who can sponsor immigrants, and whether you can change your immigration status. Gain an understanding of the concepts of immigrant versus nonimmigrant status and the rights of noncitizens.

How can someone immigrate to the United States?

Our immigration system has three main “hooks” for those who want to come to the United States permanently: family, employment, and humanitarian grounds. 

“Family” refers primarily to individuals who are beneficiaries of an approved relative petition (filed by a U.S. citizen, lawful permanent resident, or holds one of several other specific types of visa). For instance, a U.S. citizen might file a family petition for her parents, who are still living abroad.

Sometimes, a person may apply to remain permanently in the U.S. based on the terms of their employment visa. This typically includes those living and working in the U.S. with visas such as the H-1B (for high-skilled workers).

Finally, many people immigrate to the U.S. by getting humanitarian relief, including asylum/refugee status for survivors of persecution abroad, the “T visa” for survivors of human trafficking; and the “U visa” for survivors of crimes committed and reported in the U.S.

In addition to these three broad avenues for immigration, thousands of people come to the U.S. each year as “nonimmigrants.”

What is the difference between an immigrant and a nonimmigrant?

People from around the world come to the United States for various reasons. When granting permission for individuals to come into this country (a visa), our immigration system divides these new arrivals into two large categories: immigrants and nonimmigrants. 

“Immigrant” status is attached to a person who is granted permission to permanently reside in the United States through, for instance, an approved family petition filed by a family member who is a permanent resident or U.S. citizen. Immigrants may also work without restriction and are eventually eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship. 

A “nonimmigrant” is a non-U.S. citizen who enters the United States temporarily and for a specific purpose: for instance, to visit or be temporarily reunited with family; go to school; or work for a particular company or another employer. The amount of time a nonimmigrant may remain in the U.S. and the specific terms of their status here (for instance, whether they are allowed to work, where they can work, etc.) depends on the particular type of nonimmigrant visa they hold. In some cases, a nonimmigrant in the U.S. can apply for and adjust their immigrant status.

What rights are available to immigrants living in the U.S.? Nonimmigrants?

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that many, but not all, fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution apply to all people within U.S. borders—including aliens whose presence in this country is unlawful. These rights include equal protection of the law under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Additionally, the majority of persons present in the U.S. without documentation are afforded fundamental procedural rights in the face of deportation, including a hearing before an immigration judge, interpretation services, reasonable notice of the charges against them, etc.

Do I need a lawyer to apply for U.S. immigration benefits?

You do not have to have a lawyer to apply for and obtain immigration benefits. But the immigration system can be highly complex. Immigration attorneys are best suited to navigate immigration law and help you develop your application strategies. If you expect difficulties with your case, it is best to talk to an immigration attorney. Note that all immigration applications and their instructions are available online for free here. 

Warning: Many people seek to take advantage of immigrants by claiming expert knowledge of the immigration system. Always carefully check an attorney’s credentials. Before paying, ask for a written agreement outlining what the attorney will do and how much it will cost. Note that a “notary public” is authorized only to witness the signature of forms in the United States. While a notary public in many Latin American countries refers to a person who received the equivalent of a law license, this is not the case in the U.S. Individuals not qualified to offer legal assistance concerning immigration matters may victimize members of the immigration communities.

How do I immigrate to the U.S. based on employment?

Several immigration benefits can be obtained through employment. Whether your company is transferring you to one of its U.S. offices, you are seeking to expand your foreign business in the U.S., or you have a specific skill that is valuable to the U.S. labor market, several visa types may be available to you. However, employment-based immigration is also competitive and complex. To ensure the best result, speak with an immigration attorney about your employment goals.

How do I immigrate to the U.S. through family?

Individuals and families may sometimes immigrate to the United States if they are the beneficiaries of a petition filed by a relative who is a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident. Our immigration system prioritizes immediate relatives (spouses, parents, and unmarried children under age 21) of U.S. citizens. Other categories of family relationships—for instance, siblings of U.S. citizens, spouses of permanent residents, etc.—are subject to numerical caps, and there is a complex preference system. They may need to wait years before they can apply to immigrate to the U.S. So it is always important to talk to an experienced immigration attorney about family-based immigration options.

How do I immigrate to the U.S. for humanitarian reasons?

Some individuals and families may immigrate to the United States for humanitarian reasons. This category includes refugees/asylees fleeing persecution in their home countries and beneficiaries of special visas for survivors of serious crimes and human trafficking. All immigrants coming to the U.S. for humanitarian reasons must undergo rigorous screening and comply with several specific rules and requirements. Therefore, it’s always best to consult an immigration attorney before applying.

What agencies control immigration to the United States?

Immigration to the United States is governed exclusively by federal law, most notably the Immigration and Nationality Act or “INA.” Several federal agencies implement the INA. The most prominent is the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). DHS houses U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). These three subagencies are responsible for enforcing immigration law and making decisions on applications for immigration benefits. However, several other federal agencies play a role in implementing U.S. immigration law, including the Department of Justice, the Department of State, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Labor

Related Guides

  • Asylum Guide

    Immigration Laws & Rights

    This guide, created by the University of Houston Law Center Immigration Clinic, is designed to inform you about the USCIS Asylum Program.
  • Immigrants' Rights When Law Enforcement Approaches

    Immigration Laws & Rights

    You have rights when you are approached by a law enforcement officer or ICE agent—no matter what your immigration status is. This guide offers tips...
  • Related Articles