The process for legal entry into the United States is a long one; one that takes years– sometimes even decades–to complete. However, despite the long wait, the U.S continues to see increases in immigration trends. There’s no doubt that immigration influxes have changed the economic and political scopes in the U.S, but the system of legal immigration continues to remain in the backwaters of the American consciousness. Although the 1965 Hart-Celler Immigration Act ended the earlier racially limiting laws on immigration by focusing on skilled employment instead, the U.S immigration system is nonetheless still very complicated and strict. Consequently, many Americans lack a basic understanding of the system. Therefore, it is important to understand what it really means when U.S citizens say, “get in line.”
There are various paths and dead ends that one may encounter when navigating the U.S immigration system. To demonstrate this, let’s go through the system ourselves. The first set of questions that you, a potential new American, may encounter is whether you have a relative who is either a U.S Citizen or permanent resident or if you are a skilled worker. If the answer is no to either question, then you’ve encountered a dead end. If you say that your U.S relative is a U.S citizen, then you must either be their parent, spouse, or minor child to go on to the easiest path to legal status. You can receive your green card and after 3-5 years you can apply for citizenship, in which case you must go through the application process that is composed of civics, oral, and written tests in English. There is still some hope if you’re an adult child or sibling of a U.S citizen but they must be at least 21 years old. The wait time in that case ranges from 6-22 years of wait time to get a green card (plus around 5 years to be eligible to apply for citizenship).
If you say that you do have a relative who is in the U.S, and they are permanent residents, then you must either be their spouse or child to continue to the next step. If not, then once again, you’ve reached a dead end. If the child of the green card holder, you must either be a minor or be unmarried. As a spouse or minor child, you may receive your green card after 5-7 years (plus 5 more years to apply for citizenship). As an unmarried adult child, the wait time for a legal status is much longer; It would take around 14-20 years total to become a U.S citizen.
The process for skilled workers (the only other large group of immigrants allowed into the U.S) is even more complicated. The best possible scenario as a skilled worker is to either be a multimillion-dollar investor, star athlete, or a genius. In that case, the wait time to become a U.S citizen would range between 6-7 years (equal to being a minor child, parent, or spouse of a U.S citizen over the age of 21). If you are not already ultimately successful or very wealthy, but you do have a college degree you must have a job offer. Your potential employer must also be willing to file all the paperwork, pay the hefty fees, and wait the 6-10 years it may take for you to receive a green card. If not, then you’ve also reached a dead end. However, your potential employer may be willing to do all that except wait, in which case they must file a temporary work visa (the cap for work visas is 85,000 per year which is fulfilled within a day).
The process to become a legal immigrant–let alone a citizen–is expensive, slow, and strict. For many applicants it is worth it if it means reuniting with loved ones, starting a business, beginning or continuing a career, or simply starting a new life in the U.S. It is important to acknowledge the work, time, and effort that immigrants put to join American society, and the contributions they grant to the U.S.