About one million people immigrate to the US legally each year. That's not enough to admit everyone who wants in. The wait to immigrate can last more than a decade. Are there ways to be admitted legally faster that can lead to immigrant status down the line?

  • Quotas and restrictions limit and delay immigrant visas
  • While immigration may be the goal, temporary entry may have advantages
  • Nonimmigrant visas provide a way in, and perhaps a bridge to immigrant status

Hurry Up and Wait

Immigration isn't a level playing field. Immigrant visas are mostly available to educated or wealthy people, or those with spouses or parents in the US. Immigrant visas are also tilted away from Central American countries and others with historically high numbers of immigrants.

Getting In – Legally

The wait to immigrate can be years or decades. A green card is the holy grail, granting permanent resident status and a path to citizenship. But just getting into the country on a temporary basis has benefits. And while in some cases it can lead to immigrant status, temporary entry generally can't be used as a springboard to immigration.

In fact, in most cases intent to immigrate is grounds for denial or revocation of nonimmigrant visas.

Two Broad Categories of Entrants

Foreigners are admitted to the US under two visa categories:

An immigrant visa is issued with the intention of admitting the person permanently. Immigrant visas are issued to three general categories of applicants:

  • Family members of citizens or permanent residents
  • Skilled, in-demand workers sponsored by employers
  • Diversity Visa Lottery winners

Family members. Priority goes to the spouse and minor children of citizens. They can get immigrant visas quickly.

Others aren't so lucky. Adult children, parents, siblings, or other relatives of US citizens or lawful permanent residents may wait up to 20 years for a visa.

Skilled workers. Five categories of workers can get work-related immigrant visas. Skilled, in-demand workers, other special types of workers, and persons who will invest and hire persons in a new US business can get immigrant visas. About 140,000 do each year.

Diversity Visa Lottery winners. Every year millions apply for 50,000 special immigrant visas under this State Department program. Applications are made online, and the visas awarded by lottery. Preference goes to people from countries with few immigrants here.

If You Can't Get an Immigrant Visa – The Dual Intent Problem

A nonimmigrant visa lets foreigners into the country temporarily. These visas usually won't be issued to persons whose intent is to immigrate. This is called "dual intent."

Some persons may enter on nonimmigrant visas with dual intent:

  • Persons admitted to specialty occupations with an H1-B visa, for example, can pursue immigrant status while they work
  • Fiancees or foreign spouses of US citizens and their minor children admitted on K visas
  • Corporate transferees, their spouses and minor children admitted on L visas
  • Spouses and minor children of lawful permanent residents admitted on V visas

Federal rules also may allow dual intent for workers of extraordinary ability, athletes, artists or entertainers, and treaty traders or investors.

Others with nonimmigrant visas can't seek an immigrant visa. They can extend their visa or change from one nonimmigrant status to another. Students, for example, may apply for change of status to an employment category. A student who obtains an H-1B visa then should be allowed to seek immigrant status.

Other Special Situations

There are other cases where temporary entry allows a person to seek permanent status without affecting the entrant's original status:

  • Asylum seekers and refugees may be admitted due to persecution or conditions in their countries. Asylees and refugees must prove persecution or the threat of it based on certain things, like religious or political beliefs. Once admitted, they may apply for green cards.
  • The Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services lists other special adjustment programs for immigrant visas. These include victims of crime or human trafficking. Most categories are strictly defined and affect few people.

Questions for Your Attorney:

  • What's the best resource for finding H-1B employers?
  • Can persons admitted on temporary employment visas bring their spouses or children too?
  • Can I extend my stay in the US by adjusting my nonimmigrant status?

Tagged as: Immigration, Citizenship, immigration wait, immigration delay