Reason's guide to legal immigration


Reason put together this excellent flow chart (beautifully illustrated by alum Terry Colon!) that describes the various paths of the US immigration process.

I would love to see an entire book of flowcharts like this, explaining everything from how the Federal Reserve works to how tritium zipper pulls are made.

New at Reason: Mike Flynn, Shikha Dalmia, and Terry Colon on America's Absurd Immigration Waiting Line


  1. Thanks so much for this …. I’ve finally married my English sweetheart (who’s here in the US with me), and this makes it SO much easier to understand the whole process ….

  2. Wow! I get it now! Thanks. I’m going to print a copy and hang it in the “reading room” (the bathroom)for all to see. I would LOVE to see more flow charts just like this one.

  3. As an adult child of an American immigrant by marriage, I have to say this: Americans have NO idea how complicated, convoluted and messed up the immigration process is.

    When you’re trying to become an American citizen, it literally feels like you’re being punished for doing things the right way and obeying the laws. Americans have no idea what immigrant hopefuls go through.

    It’s especially ironic, because America is essentially a country essentially founded by immigrants (settlers). The irony must be painful for native Americans to watch.

  4. Very interesting. So that explains why my father never applied for US citizenship.

    The system is really screwed up. When my father died, his family in his home country wanted to come to the funeral, but the only one who got approved was my two year old first cousin once removed. Plus, the cost to get ANY visa is outrageous. (Think $100 for a visitor’s visa, when you’re coming from a country whose minimum wage is $70/month.) Just imagine how difficult a permanent visa is.

  5. I’m an American who has immigrated to Canada, which is no walk in the park either. Immigration requires a daunting amount of paperwork and many years of waiting … which isn’t really a bad thing. It’s a big deal to change your citizenship.

    Canada is much more reasonable than American in many regards, though. The wait times are much less (I became a permanent resident — and able to work and go to college — in less than a year). Canada also recognizes “alternative” relationships, like common-law relationships and same-sex relationships, as equal to traditional marriages for establishing who is related to whom.

  6. @5: do you mean ‘native americans’? ‘first nations’ is almost exclusively a Canadian term. Or do they get a shortcut I’m not aware of?

  7. I fully agree with everything Mark said in this post.

    However, it raises the question of… why are there any restrictions on immigration at all?

    Now, this is a different question than citizenship… which has two pragmatic issues attached to it: voting and welfare.

    But why is residency tied to citizenship? Who cares where people live and where they work; that’s their private business.

    Let’s solve the “illegal immigration” problem by opening the borders and let anyone who wants to live in the USA and can find a job do so.

  8. Zulu:

    “Let’s solve the “illegal immigration” problem by opening the borders and let anyone who wants to live in the USA and can find a job do so.”

    ‘Cause there aren’t plenty of people that are under-employed now, and with the extra bodies, that’s just gonna drive their wages down even further..

    Underemployment is a real problem, and opening the borders would only make it a *LOT* worse.

  9. So basically, unless I get hitched to a Yank, the only way i’d get in to the US is if I find an employer that’s willing to bend over backwards to keep me in the country.

    … That’s truly screwed up.

  10. this is great…

    My significant other came here when she was 5. She came up through public school then graduated from UCLA with a BA in design.

    She did file late for your citizenship.

    She was denied a few weeks ago. They sent the letter saying your were denied 6 months or so ago and this letter is telling you that it’s too late to appeal because your past the appeal date (never got the first denial letter).

    This is after 5 years of waiting and being told that her security check was stuck in the FBI because her name is shared with a lot of other people with the same name.

    Now we are like… what the fuck?

    Is she going to get deported? She was born in Costa Rica while her parents where trying to get in to the US from Taiwan. She speaks not a word of spanish and Costa Rica won’t even update her passport because they don’t thinks she’s a citizen either…

    She’s a better citzen then I am. Has a great job, drives a lexus and pays out the noes in taxes. Volunteers in the community and makes a real positive difference.

    what the fuck…

  11. I second the motion for the Canadian version to be produced, as well as some other countries with high levels of immigration (e.g. UK, France, Australia).

  12. in response to Mindpowered, for first world countries ie, developed countries UK, France, Germany ect. the process is the same. you should check out japans immigration system its a little easier, however try finding a job other than english teacher to keep you employed there once you get there and it will make you wish you wer back in the usa again… tough.. it sucks i know.

  13. #15: I think you should contact your congressperson/senator. I’ve been given to understand that they can be both helpful and effective. Write some letters and get others to do the same.

  14. Don’t come to Canada. We don’t recognize any of your filthy foreign credentials. I say that as the son of an Australian geologist. He works in IT now :@

  15. #13 posted by wanderer:

    Underemployment is a real problem, and opening the borders would only make it a *LOT* worse.

    The best fix for that is a minimum wage hike and some real enforcement to make sure employers actually pay it. Of course, once we start paying a real living wage for unskilled labor we will inevitably see our costs go up. How much do you think that basket of strawberries will cost you when it’s picked by white suburbanites?

    At any rate, when it’s vastly more difficult to immigrate legally than to just sneak in it just drives more people to break the law. Think of it as DRM for people.

  16. Great chart, thank you. I just want to mention: one additional way to immigrate is through the Diversity Visa Lottery, which takes place each year. Anyone can apply, granted their native country has sent less than 50,000 of their citizens to the US in the last 5 years.

  17. “My significant other came here when she was 5.

    She did file late for your citizenship.

    She was denied a few weeks ago.

    Now we are like… what the fuck?”

    Not to be trite, but you noticed the top row of the chart, right?

    Marry her. Taddah! Problem solved! Heck, you don’t even had to stay married. Give it 3 years or so until the citizenship is granted, and you can divorce and move on with your lives (not like divorce is any issue at all in this country – most…literally, most…marriages end that way, anyway).

  18. @23: To be fair, they did say “your citizenship”. It’s like an STD – you need to be carrying it in order to give it to your partners.

  19. I am currently in the process of applying for dual citizenship with Finland. This flowchart makes Finland’s process (which involves proving proficiency in Finnish or Swedish) seem simple and easy.

  20. I’m on the electrified border fence on this one. I’ve watched two of my friends become US Citizens in the last couple of years, and it did not seem to be quite the daunting task. Mind you, they already were gainfully employed, had kids in the US, etc. It isn’t supposed to be easy to become a citizen of a country.

  21. @#20: I don’t disagree that the minimum wage could go up, but if the problem is unemployment rates being driven up by more citizens, how does raising the minimum wage help?

    Maybe we’re doing immigrants a favor. They’ll be much, much more qualified than the average American to deal with Comcast and AT&T after going through this process.

  22. I do really dislike the term “Native American”. Too loaded with colonialist assumptions.

    However, as the spouse of a First Nations person, I’ve been lead to believe that we can go wherever in Canada and the US with full benefits.

    It’s a shame this flowchart doesn’t cover that case.

  23. Now, this is a different question than citizenship… which has two pragmatic issues attached to it: voting and welfare.

    You don’t have to be a citizen to get welfare, or section 8 benefits or a host of other government benefits. You merely need to be “an eligible non-citizen” which includes Permanent Residents and Refugees/Asylees (who aren’t included in this chart.)

  24. I actually did design a government program that was handbook-like and used lots of snarky illustrations. The illustrations were by Robert Neubecker who did the Sideways poster, and creates lots of editorial illustrations for the big news magazines. It was/is great to read as an adult, since it sucks you in with appropriately brief descriptions.

    It would be nice to do something like that, particularly if it were online and free.

  25. It would be interesting to see the flow chart for the following potential émigrés:

    A) Ex-dictator who tortured his countrymen.

    B) Torture victim of ex-dictator.

  26. If you don’t have family in the USA, I’d recommend going elsewhere anyway. =P
    I got my green card in about 7 months, and can (theoretically) become a citizen in another 2 years or so. I definitely am not planning on it, though.

    Pity travel is getting so much more expensive, otherwise I’d recommend immigrants head to Australia, Canada or Europe. Quality of life is good, and you won’t have to deal with Republicans :D

  27. Born and raised American, I met an English Rose in 1993, asked her to marry me in 1994. Applied for a “Fiancee Visa” in January 1995, didn’t get approved until eight months later, August 1995, a couple of weeks before our marriage in the states in September.

    My parents paid for an immigration lawyer for us as a wedding gift (the gift that keeps on giving)

    For the next SEVEN YEARS we were on the treadmill to get my wife a green card. Neither of us have a criminal record, I was always gainfully employed, I have a military record including honorable discharge.

    At one point our file was LOST by the INS. Our lawyer said it was a “miracle” it was found, because all the lost files (!) he knew of stayed lost.

    Every single person at the INS we talked with during these seven years was rude, incompetent, ignorant, or any combination thereof. By the time we moved back to the UK in Jan 2002, my wife still had not received her Green Card.

    I kid you not, if (for some reason) we have to move back to the States, my wife will be illegal. I’ll go to some back alley in LA (where we lived) and BUY a Green Card.

    I would never, ever, deal with American Immigration again. Ever.

    (oh, btw, to get permanent residency in the UK, a couple of forms, one year probation, then a couple of more form, and done. Sorted. No muss, no fuss, how it should be.)

  28. Oh, yes. That chart. I’m glad it got posted here.

    A couple of details, as someone who’s just petitioned for a couple of my stepkids —

    This chart actually doesn’t address the question of undocumented people. If you’re here w/o docs you’re off the chart. Ditto if you’re on Temporary Protected Status. If you came here w/o a visa you have to go home to apply for legal entry; if you’ve been here unauthorized for more than a year, and you leave to begin the process, then you’re out for 10 years. Unless you have family in the US that are able & willing to file for an extreme hardship waiver, which ranges from not a sure thing to a very bad idea, depending on a whole bunch of circumstances.

    Diversity visa is great — but it excludes the countries that most migrants come from.

    Angryf — I hear you, loud and clear. However **please do not** believe that getting married now will solve anything. If someone enters as a fiancee, that’s one thing — but the section of law that would allow someone to adjust status on basis of marriage without having to leave the country is out of effect and has been since 2001. It’s called 245(i) of the Immigration & Naturalization Act. Shirley Jackson-Lee introduces it every year, and every year it dies in committee. There are thousands of families waiting.

    Codereduk — Absolutely typical story. They jerk people around like this all the time, and it’s **always** the would-be immigrant’s fault. Revolting people, the bureaucrats I mean. Cleaning up our immigration service, and making immigration law rational and at least a little humane, would make a huge difference in the US’ international reputation.

    Niconiconico — YES! My husband was born elsewhere. When we got married, a dozen relatives applied for tourist visas to come to the wedding, at staggering expense — including my stepkids. Every single one of them was denied. I heard people making some really bitter and cynical comments that are **way** out of character for them.

    #31, Yes, it’s true, you don’t have to be a citizen to qualify for benefits. However, being a legal resident doesn’t qualify you right away. There’s a waiting time of 5 years, in most cases, and if you’re petitioned for by a family member that person is liable for all expenses until you qualify. I just signed affidavits of support for a couple of people, so DHS now knows how many pairs of socks I own. Only kidding a little bit. It’s a very invasive process, and the responsibility is daunting, even when I know that I’m petitioning for people who are young, healthy, and hard-working.

  29. It’s a relief to see a forum like this that doesn’t fill up with nativist comments whenever something like this is posted.

  30. @#28 Patrick, People immigrate for a reason, usually either to be with another person or for work. If there isn’t work here for them, few people will undertake the arduous task of immigrating.

    The impact on empoyment opportunities cuts both ways, too. Population decline is a serious problem in many rural areas. I have worked with companies in some rural areas that would literally have closed their plant in a given county if Latino immigrants had not provided a sufficient number of workers to allow them to keep the plants fully staffed. The plants were the only employers in the counties. No immigrants, no employment for US citizens either, and everyone there knew it.

    A big part of the problem is a system that forces many immigrants to remain undocumented. As indicated by the pink box at the bottom-left of the chart, if you are unskilled (eg., work in a chicken processing plant) there is no line to get into. Period. Because these immigrants are undocumented, they are easily exploited — paid below minimum wage, in unsafe working conditions, denied access to worker compensation, and without recourse. That is why some companies have a preference for undocumented immigrant labor. But it is the undocumented worker that is punished if they are caught, not the employer who recruited them and facilitated their undocumented status.

    I have known many undocumented immigrants, but I have never known one that would not have pursued a legal immigration process if it were available to them.

    Another thing the chart omits is the cost. My husband had a very simple, straightforward application process and we had no legal problems, but it still took nearly 10 years and cost $4500. We didn’t use a lawyer, but lawyer’s fees would have as much as tripled that cost. Not many minimum-wage workers would be able to afford that, even if they could figure out the process. (For example, his fingerprints “expired” four times while we were waiting for forms to be processed. Each time he was given 72 hours to go to an “officially designated” place to be fingerprinted. The first time it was in the town we lived in and cost $50. By the fourth time, we had to travel 500 miles to the sole designated fingerprinter in our region and pay $300 for the same thing.)

  31. Carolita,

    “I have known many undocumented immigrants, but I have never known one that would not have pursued a legal immigration process if it were available to them.”

    Thank you for that observation. I can say about the same. The truth is that no nation or ethnic group consists wholly of perfect people. There are a few bad apples everywhere, and maybe some people find it advantageous to maintain the present system. Not all of them are migrants! But I think there are a few who profit from things as they are.

    The powers that maintain the present system, however, are all here in the US. It is in no way the fault of the migrant-sending countries, imperfect as they may be.

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