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Objectives and Goals of the U.S. Immigration System

U.S. immigration law is very complex, and there is much confusion as to how it works.  The Immigration and Naturalization Act (INA), the body of law governing current immigration policy, provides for an annual worldwide limit of 675,000 permanent immigrants, with certain exceptions for close family members.  Congress and the President determine a separate number for refugee admissions.  Historically, immigration to the United States has been based upon three principles: the reunification of families, admitting immigrants with skills that are valuable to the U.S. economy, and protecting refugees.  This fact sheet provides basic information about how the U.S. legal immigration system is designed.

Immigration policies in the United States are set by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The USCIS is the bureau within the Department of Homeland Security that directs the immigration process in this country, including citizenship, permanent residency, family- and employment-related immigration, employment authorization, and inter-country adoptions. The USCIS also handles foreign student authorization, asylum and refugee status, and replacement immigration documents.

Policies and regulations established by the U.S. immigration system are designed to allow visitors, temporary workers, and immigrants lawful entry into the United Sates. The immigration system has two main objectives. First, it gives those seeking permanent residency a clear process for obtaining U.S. citizenship (naturalization). It also provides information for those who would like to visit the United States temporarily as students, tourists, or workers. Second, the immigration system protects the rights of current citizens by stopping illegal entry, benefit distribution, or employment.

The U.S. immigration system strives to meet the following goals:

Safety: First and foremost, immigration laws are in place to keep U.S. citizens safe. Although many new immigrants are welcomed into the country each year, the immigration system also has safeguards to prevent unlawful entry into the United States.

Family reunification: Policies established by the USCIS are intended to keep families intact. Immigration laws make it easier for those with immediate family members (parents, children, or spouses) already living in the United States to enter the country.

Asylum: Immigration laws provide political, religious, and social asylum for those fleeing discrimination or maltreatment in their native countries.

Integration: The immigration system supports those seeking permanent residency or citizenship by providing helpful resources and information.


Visas: Immigrant and Nonimmigrant

Whether you would like to visit the United States temporarily or stay permanently, the first step is to obtain a visa. A visa allows a person to travel to the United States and apply for admission to stay for longer periods of time. However, having a visa does not guarantee entrance into the United States. At the port of entry, an immigration inspector will determine the visa holder’s eligibility for admission into the country.

Operated by the U.S. Department of State, the National Visa Center (NVC) is a visa processing center that collects visa application forms and fees. Although visas are not issued in the United States, visa applications are processed through the NVC in New Hampshire. The NVC processes applications by first ensuring that an applicant’s dates of visitation are acceptable. Then, the NVC contacts the applicant for the required processing fees and visa documentation. Once the visa application has been approved, the NVC sends these records to a U.S. embassy or consulate, so that the applicant may obtain the visa. The length of time needed to issue an immigrant visa varies and depends on the applicant’s country of origin and the type of visa requested.

There are two types of visas available for travel to the United States:

Nonimmigrant Visa: This type of visa is issued to those visiting the United States on a temporary basis, including students, tourists, businesspeople, workers, or patients receiving medical treatment. Unless you qualify for the Visa Waiver Program (generally for stays of ninety days or less) or are exempt from the visa requirement, a nonimmigrant visa is necessary for short-term admission into the country.

Immigrant Visa: If you are seeking permanent resident status in the United States, you will need to apply for an immigrant visa. When immigrant visa holders enter the country, they obtain a permanent resident card, also known as a green card. People with green cards may live and work in the United States for as long as they would like. Immigrant visa holders keep their native citizenships and passports and do not have to become naturalized citizens of the United States. Anyone with a green card may file an application to become a naturalized U.S. citizen after five years (three years if the applicant is married to a U.S. citizen).

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