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I want to understand the immigration process.

Individual Rights

This guide can help you understand the United States immigration process.
Overview

Guide Overview

Warning: The information and forms in this guide are not a substitute for the advice and help of a lawyer.

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

Further Reading:
Migration Policy Institute
National Immigrant Justice Center

Research Tips

Common questions about Immigration Laws & Rights

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."

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Instructions & Forms

Warning: The information and forms in this guide are not a substitute for the advice and help of a lawyer.

Checklist Steps

You can take the following steps to properly consider the guide's resources and your overall legal issue. 

  • Step A: Write Down Your Facts
    • If you haven't already done it, it is a good idea to write out exactly what you say happened in your situation.
      • Make sure to include dates and notes of any proof you may have.
  • Step B: Define Your Problem
    • Think about the problem you are facing, and try to answer the questions below:
      • What person and/or organization do you think is either at fault or is on the opposite side of your case?
      • What directly caused the situation you are dealing with?
      • If you were able to solve your issue, in the future, what would be your ideal outcome? What would you be willing to accept?
    • Try to exactly write out the exact problem you are trying to solve. This should be no more than a paragraph in length.
  • Step C: Keep In Mind
    • As you review the contents of the guide, make sure to keep your facts and your problem in mind. 

A good place to start is to review the Frequently Asked Questions, Articles, and any forms that may be available. Please note, not every guide will have a form. 

  • Frequently Asked Questions are "bite-sized" answers to specific questions visitors to TexasLawHelp may have.
  • Articles are more comprehensive guides on a specific legal subject.
  • Forms are documents you may be able to use to go to court.
    • WARNING: The information and forms in this guide 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

If you need other help, use the Legal Help Directory Directory to look for a lawyer, free legal aid program or self-help center in your area.

WARNING: The information and forms in this guide 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

Articles in this guide