U.S. Immigration Law: Everything Immigrants Need to Know

U.S. Immigration Law: Everything Immigrants Need to Know

February 20, 2024 11 min read

American judge with a justice balance.

Have you ever fantasized about moving to another country? Well, you’re not alone. In 2021, 16% of adults worldwide –around 900 million people– said they would like to leave their own country permanently, if given the opportunity. Interestingly, the U.S. tops the list of the most desired destinations, with one in five potential migrants naming it their preferred future residence. 

Given the wide number of immigrants currently living in the U.S. –13.6 percent of the nation’s residents are foreign-born, more than half of whom are naturalized citizens– and the number of people who desire to move to the United States, this comprehensive guide about U.S. Immigration Law can be a useful resource to navigate the legal complexities and empowering immigrants to make informed decisions. 

Types of U.S. Visas  

More than 20 nonimmigrant visa types exist for people traveling to the United States temporarily. There are many more types of immigrant visas for those coming to live permanently in the United States. Deciding which is the appropriate U.S. visa for you depends on the purpose of your visit, intended duration of stay, qualifications, citizenship, and other relevant considerations. Here’s a snapshot of the most common U.S. visas: 

Tourist Visas (B-1/B-2) 

Purpose: B-1 visas are for temporary business visitors, while B-2 visas are for tourists and individuals visiting friends or relatives. 

Eligibility Criteria: 

Application Process: 

  • Complete the Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application (DS-160). 
  • Pay the visa application fee. 
  • Schedule a visa interview at the U.S. embassy or consulate. 
  • Attend the interview with the required documents, including the DS-160 confirmation page, passport, and supporting evidence. 

Student Visas (F-1, M-1) 

Purpose: F-1 visas are for academic students, while M-1 visas are for vocational or non-academic students. 

Eligibility Criteria: 

  • Acceptance into a Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS)-approved school
  • Proof of financial ability to cover tuition and living expenses. 
  • Intent to return to the home country after completing studies. 

Application Process: 

  • Obtain Form I-20 from the school. 
  • Pay the SEVIS fee
  • Complete the DS-160 form and pay the visa application fee. 
  • Schedule and attend a visa interview at the U.S. embassy or consulate. 

Work Visas  

The list below encompasses the most common work visa categories, but there are many more. Check out the U.S. Bureau of Consular Affairs to access details and specifics for each one. 


  • H-1B visas are for specialty occupation workers. 
  • L-1 visas are for intracompany transferees (executives, managers, or employees with specialized knowledge). 
  • O-1 visas are for individuals with extraordinary ability or achievement in their field. 

Eligibility Criteria: 

  • H-1B: Job offer from a U.S. employer for a specialized position requiring a bachelor’s degree or equivalent. 
  • L-1: Employment with a qualifying multinational company and a transfer to a U.S. office. 
  • O-1: Extraordinary ability or achievement in sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics. 

Application Process: 

  • H-1B: Employer files a Labor Condition Application and Form I-129 on behalf of the employee. 
  • L-1: Employer files Form I-129 on behalf of the employee. 
  • O-1: Employer files Form I-129, and the individual may self-petition if they have extraordinary ability. 

Diversity Visa Program (lottery-based visas) 

Purpose: Promote diversity in the immigrant population by providing visas to individuals from countries with low immigration rates to the U.S. 

Eligibility Criteria: 

  • Nationals of countries with low immigration rates to the U.S. Eligibility list is determined annually; see the latest requirements here
  • Education or work experience that meets specific requirements. 
  • Adherence to eligibility requirements outlined in the annual Diversity Visa Program instructions. 

Application Process: 

  • Applicants submit an electronic entry form during the annual registration period, usually in the fall. 
  • Entries are selected through a computer-generated lottery system. 
  • Selected individuals are notified and must proceed with the visa application process, including submitting additional documentation and attending a visa interview. 
  • If approved, applicants receive a diversity visa, allowing them to immigrate to the U.S. and pursue lawful permanent residency. 

Employment Authorization for Immigrants 

For immigrants seeking employment opportunities in the United States, understanding the process of obtaining employment authorization is crucial to ensure a seamless integration into the U.S. workforce: 

How to get an employment authorization card 

To be eligible for an employment authorization card, you must be within a specific visa category that allows employment, such as the work visa category outlined above, asylees and refugees, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients. 

Application Process: 

  • File Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization. 
  • Pay the required filing fee –about $410. Fee waivers may be available in certain circumstances. 
  • Await U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) processing and receive the employment authorization card upon approval. 

Additionally, employers and employees must complete their respective sections of Form I-9.  

What is an I-9 form and how to fill it out 

The I-9 Form, Employment Eligibility Verification, is used to document verification of the identity and employment authorization of each new employee. It consists of two sections and two supplements: 

  • Section One: Employee Information and Attestation 
  • Completed by employees on or before the first day of employment. 
  • Section Two: Employer or Authorized Representative Review and Verification 
  • Completed by employers within three business days of the employee’s start date. 
  • Supplement A, Preparer and/or Translator Certification for Section 1   
  • Employees present acceptable documents to establish identity and employment authorization. 
  • Supplement B: Reverification and Rehires  
  • Completed by employers for employees who are rehired or whose employment authorization requires re-verification.  

How to Get a Green Card 

This guide outlines the two primary avenues for obtaining a green card, also known as lawful permanent residency: family-based sponsorship and employment-based sponsorship. 

Family-Based Green Card 

Eligibility Criteria: 

  • Sponsorship by a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident. Sponsorship requirements vary based on the family relationship; click here for more details. 
  • Relationship with the sponsor (spouse, children, parents, or siblings). 
  • Compliance with U.S. immigration laws and admissibility requirements. 

Application Process: 

  • The sponsoring family member (petitioner) files a petition (Form I-130) with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (U.S.CIS). 
  • Upon approval, the case is transferred to the National Visa Center (NVC). 
  • The intending immigrant completes visa application forms, undergoes a medical examination, and attends a visa interview at the U.S. embassy or consulate in their home country. 
  • If approved, the immigrant receives an immigrant visa to travel to the U.S. and is processed for lawful permanent residency upon arrival. 

Employment-Based Green Card 

Eligibility Criteria: 

  • Employment offer from a U.S. employer for a specific position. 
  • The employer must obtain labor certification from the U.S. Department of Labor for certain employment-based categories. 

Application Process: 

  • The employer initiates the process by filing Form I-140, Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker, with the USCIS. 
  • Once the petition is approved, the intending immigrant may apply for adjustment of status (Form I-485) if physically present in the U.S. or go through consular processing if abroad. 

Quotas and Priority Dates  

  • Employment-based green cards are subject to annual numerical limits (quotas), and applicants may have to wait for their priority dates to become current. 

Upon approval of the green card application, individuals become lawful permanent residents. 

After five years (or three years for spouses of U.S. citizens), green card holders may be eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship through the naturalization process. 

How to Become a U.S. Citizen 

If you have been a lawful permanent resident for 5 years, you can become a U.S. citizen through the U.S. naturalization process. 

Eligibility requirements for U.S. citizenship 

To be eligible for naturalization based on being a lawful permanent resident for at least five years, you must: 

  • Be at least 18 years old when you submit Form N-400, Application for Naturalization. 
  • Be a lawful permanent resident (green card holder). 
  • Have resided continuously in the U.S. for at least five years (or three years if married to a U.S. citizen). 
  • Establish a continuous residence in the U.S., with the majority of time spent physically present. 
  • Maintain residence in the state or USCIS district where the application is filed. 
  • Demonstrate adherence to U.S. laws, including tax obligations. 
  • Demonstrate good moral character, an understanding of U.S. government and history, and proficiency in English
  • Exhibit proficiency in reading, writing, and speaking English. 
  • Pass a civics test, demonstrating knowledge of U.S. government and history. 

Benefits of being a U.S. citizen 

  • Voting rights 
  • Children born to U.S. citizens may acquire citizenship automatically. 
  • U.S. citizens have the privilege of sponsoring certain family members for immigration, such as parents, siblings, and married children. 
  • U.S. citizens are eligible for a broader range of federal benefits, including Social Security, Medicare, and other public assistance programs. 

Responsibilities of being a U.S. citizen 

  • U.S. citizens are required to report their worldwide income to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), regardless of where they reside. 
  • Serving on a jury when called is a civic duty that citizens are obligated to fulfill. 
  • Serve the country through military service when required. 

Immigration Enforcement 

Understanding the basics of immigration enforcement is essential for immigrants and the broader community. Learn more about the key agencies involved in these processes: 

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) 

Its primary mission is to enforce immigration laws, ensure public safety, and protect the integrity of the U.S. border and immigration system. The key functions and responsibilities of ICE include: 

  • Identifying, apprehending, and removing individuals who are in the U.S. without legal authorization or who have violated immigration laws. 
  • Securing U.S. borders to prevent illegal entry and trafficking of goods and people. 
  • Conducting investigations related to customs and border-related crimes, including smuggling, human trafficking, and illegal import/export activities. 
  • Investigating employers suspected of hiring undocumented workers and engaging in other illegal employment practices. 
  • Managing the detention and removal of individuals subject to deportation orders or removal proceedings. 

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) 

CBP is responsible for a range of functions aimed at ensuring the security and integrity of the U.S. border and facilitating the movement of legitimate trade and travel. The key functions and responsibilities of CBP include: 

  • Deploying Border Patrol agents to monitor and secure the U.S. borders, preventing illegal entry and detecting potential threats. 
  • Conducting inspections at airports, seaports, land border crossings, and other points of entry to determine the admissibility of individuals into the United States. 
  • Facilitating the movement of legitimate trade by inspecting and clearing goods entering and exiting the United States. 
  • Detecting and intercepting illegal goods, narcotics, and contraband at ports of entry. 

United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)  

This agency plays a key role in the administration of the country’s immigration system and oversees various immigration-related processes.  

The key function and responsibility of USCIS is to manage and administer a wide range of immigration benefits, including processing applications for: 

  • Green cards (lawful permanent residency) 
  • Work visas 
  • Naturalization (U.S. citizenship) 
  • Refugee and asylum status 
  • Family-based and employment-based petitions 

USCIS also provides information, resources, and customer service to individuals navigating the immigration system, including assistance with application processes and inquiries. 

Rights of immigrants during encounters with immigration officers 

  • Right to Remain Silent – Immigrants have the right to remain silent and cannot be compelled to answer questions that may incriminate them. 
  • Right to Legal Representation – Immigrants have the right to have an attorney present during any immigration interview or hearing, at their own expense. 
  • Right to Refuse Consent – Immigrants have the right to refuse consent to a search of their person, belongings, or vehicle unless law enforcement officers have a valid search warrant. 
  • Right to Know Charges – Immigrants have the right to be informed of the charges or reasons for their detention by immigration officers. 
  • Right to Request an Interpreter – Immigrants who do not speak or understand English well have the right to request an interpreter during interactions with immigration officers. 
  • Right to Refuse to Sign – Immigrants have the right to refuse to sign any documents, including voluntary departure orders, without consulting with an attorney. 

Responsibilities of immigrants during encounters with immigration officers 

  • Provide Identification – Immigrants are generally required to carry identification documents, such as a green card or work permit, and present them upon request by immigration officers. 
  • Be Truthful – While immigrants have the right to remain silent, providing truthful information about their identity and immigration status is generally advised. 
  • Comply with Orders – Immigrants are expected to comply with lawful orders from immigration officers. Resisting arrest or hindering an investigation may lead to legal consequences. 
  • Cooperate with Searches Based on Warrant – If immigration officers have a valid search warrant, immigrants may be required to cooperate with searches of their person or property. 

Deportation and removal proceedings 

These refer to the legal processes by which non-U.S. citizens, including lawful permanent residents (green card holders) and non-immigrants, may be ordered to leave the country due to violations of immigration laws. These are some key aspects of deportation and removal proceedings: 

  • Initiation of Proceedings 

Deportation proceedings are typically initiated when an individual is apprehended by immigration authorities, such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), for violating immigration laws. This could include entering the country without proper authorization, overstaying a visa, or committing certain crimes. 

  • Notice to Appear (NTA) 

Individuals facing deportation receive a Notice to Appear (NTA), outlining the charges against them and the legal basis for their removal. The NTA specifies the date, time, and location of the immigration court hearing. 

  • Immigration Court Hearings 

Immigration court hearings are conducted by immigration judges, who determine whether an individual should be allowed to remain in the U.S. or should be ordered to leave. The individual may be represented by legal counsel, but legal representation is not provided by the government. 

  • Appeals 

Decisions made by immigration judges can be appealed to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) if the individual disagrees with the outcome of their case. In some cases, individuals facing deportation may be granted the option of voluntary departure, allowing them to leave the U.S. on their terms and avoiding a formal removal order. 

  • Removal Orders 

If the immigration judge determines that an individual is removable and denies relief, a removal order is issued. This order instructs immigration authorities to carry out the deportation. 

  • Enforcement of Removal Orders 

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is responsible for enforcing removal orders, and individuals subject to removal may be detained until they are removed from the U.S. 

Non-Profit Organizations and Legal Aid Services for Immigrants 

From organizations that provide legal representation and advocacy to those offering resources for education and empowerment, these resources aim to offer guidance on immigration processes, entry requirements, and legal protections:  

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