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I want to understand the immigration process.

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I want to understand the immigration process.

This toolkit is designed to give you information to help you understand the United States immigration process.

If you need general information about immigration, please read the Articles section and look through the Frequently Asked Questions. 

If you would like to see if you qualify for free help, please see our Find Legal Help directory. 

WARNING: The information and forms in this toolkit are not a substitute for the advice and help of a lawyer.  It’s a good idea to talk with a lawyer about your particular situation.

Frequently Asked Questions
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 people who are beneficiaries of an approved relative petition (filed by a someone who is a U.S. citizen, a lawful permanent resident, or holder of 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.

In some cases, an individual may also apply to remain permanently in the United States based on the terms of their specific employment visa. This typically includes those living and working in the U.S. with certain high-skilled visas, such as the H-1B.

Finally, many people immigrate to the U.S. seeking humanitarian relief. That may include 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., among several others.

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 many reasons. When granting permission for individuals to come into this country (a visa), our immigration system generally 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 U.S. through (for example) an approved family petition filed by a family member who is a lawful 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 on a temporary basis and for a specific purpose—for instance to visit or be temporarily reunited with family; go to school; or work for a specific employer. The amount of time that a nonimmigrant may remain in the U.S., and their status here (whether they are allowed to work, where they can work, etc.) depends on the specific type of nonimmigrant visa the hold. In certain cases, it’s possible for for a nonimmigrant in the U.S. to apply for and adjust to 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. For examples, read these cases: Wong Wing v. United States (1896); Zadvydas v. Davis (2001). These rights include equal protection of law under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Additionally, most people present in the U.S. without documentation are afforded basic 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 seek and get immigration benefits. But the immigration system can be extremely complex. Immigration attorneys are best suited to navigate immigration law and help you with 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.

Warning: There are many people who try to take advantage of immigrants by claiming expert knowledge of the immigration system. Carefully check an attorney’s credentials. Note that notarios are not attorneys in the US and cannot legally practice law or give advice. When seeing out an attorney always if they have experience in immigration. If they are not an attorney, but an accredited representative, make sure that they work for a DOJ accredited nonprofit organization. Lastly, always ask for a written agreement outlining what the attorney will do, and how much it will cost, before paying.

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

Many 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, there may be a number of visas available to you. But, employment-based immigration is also competitive and complex. For best results, talk to 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 permanent resident. Our immigration system gives priority to 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 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 to consider your family-based immigration options.

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

Some individuals and families may be permitted to immigrate to the United States for humanitarian reasons. This category includes refugees/asylees fleeing persecution in their home countries, as well as beneficiaries of special visas for survivors of serious crimes and human trafficking. All immigrants coming to the U.S. for humanitarian reasons must first undergo rigorous screening and comply with a number of specific rules and requirements. For that reason, it’s alway best to consult with an immigration attorney prior to applying.

Research Tips

The links below can provide you additional information to aid in your legal research efforts. 

Going to a Removal Hearing in Immigration Court - Video by Illinois Legal Aid Online

Please click the "Play" button to play the video.