How The Immigration System Works

Why Do I Need to Know How the Immigration System Works?

Before you even think of beginning the immigration process, you’ll need to understand how the immigration system works for the U.S.

First and foremost, the U.S. immigration system is founded on the goals of reuniting families, admitting skilled immigrants, protecting refugees, and promoting diversity within the United States. That’s something to keep in mind as you go through the process as it precedes many of the practices of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

How the immigration system works
Secondly, when trying to get an idea of how the immigration system for the U.S. works, consider that only a certain number of immigrants are allowed into the country each year. This number changes year to year so it is important to make sure you have up to date information. Let’s dive into how the immigration system works.

Here, we break down for you how the immigration system works for the U.S.

Family-Based Immigration

As stated above, unifying families is one of the core tenets of U.S. immigration policy. As such, U.S. citizens and permanent residents are able to bring certain types of family members into the U.S. The USCIS specifies that this rule applies to “immediate family members”, that is, spouses, unmarried children under 21, and parents of U.S. citizens.

The other way family members are admitted to the U.S. is through the “family preference” system which applies to adult children, siblings of U.S. citizens, spouses, and unmarried children of permanent residents.

When it comes to the number of “family preference” visas given each year, the U.S. government must legally provide more than 260,000, but often, the actual number provided has exceeded 480,000.

An important thing to remember about being admitted through the family preference system is that the U.S. citizen or permanent resident must sponsor you, meet certain income requirements, and legally acknowledge that they will be financially responsible for you once you’re in the U.S.

Employment-Based Visas

how the immigration system works

Ever wonder how celebrities manage to get immigration status so easily? Part of how the immigration works is that applicants who are highly skilled in a profession can come to the U.S. on a temporary or permanent basis. There are over 20 different types of temporary work visas depending upon the field of work you are in. Even for those temporary workers, there is a numerical limit on the number of visas admitted.

Temporary employment visas are generally linked to a specific company or job offer, while permanent visas don’t have this distinction. Additionally, permanent employment visas have an annual limit of 140,000.

A final note on employment-based visas is that the number of permanent immigrants from any given country cannot exceed 7% of the number of people immigrating to the U.S. in a given year. This is done to prevent any one group from dominating migration patterns and to promote diversity.

Asylum-Seekers and Refugees

Refugees, those who are fleeing their country and cannot return due to a “well-founded fear of persecution” hold special status in the U.S. immigration system. For refugees, admission is determined by the degree of risk they face, membership of a group that is of special concern to the President (determined annually), and if they have family members here already.

There is a limit on the number of refugees admitted and this is determined yearly by the President in consultation with Congress.

For asylum-seekers, that is, those who have already faced persecution and have come to the U.S., the rules differ. There is no numerical limit to the number of asylees admitted each year. However, those seeking asylum in the U.S. must apply for it within one year of arrival.

Diversity Lottery

Don’t have family members here and you’re lucky enough not to be a refugee? You can still seek immigration in the U.S. through a program commonly called the “diversity lottery”. The intent of the lottery is to provide 50,000 visas per year to countries with that have sent a low number (50,000 or less) of immigrants to the U.S. in the past 5 years.

This plays directly into the policy intent to “promote diversity” in the U.S. through immigration. It is important to know that there are certain requirements that must be met by those applying. Which includes equivalent of a high school education within the past five years, a minimum of two years working in a profession, and two years of training experience.
Since the visas are distributed regionally, this system of admission benefits Africans and Eastern Europeans.

Other Info about How the Immigration System Works

Temporary Protected Status (TPS) is granted to people that cannot return to their countries because of situations like “ongoing conflict” or “natural disasters”. TPS is permitted to a country for six, twelve or eighteen months and can be extended if the situation persists.

Deferred Enforcement Departure (DED) provides protection for individuals who cannot return to their countries due to instability in that country. Of note, DED is at the discretion of the executive branch of U.S. government, not by statute as TPS is.


If you or someone you know is interested in learning more about U.S. immigration, Road to Status’ blog is a great place to find up to date information and resources. Additionally, if your case is more complex and you would like to speak with a licensed immigration attorney, you can learn more about the benefits of an initial consultation before deciding on the best path for you here.

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The newsletters and articles found in this blog are offered only for general informational and educational purposes. They are not offered as and do not constitute legal advice or legal opinions.

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