What You Should Know About Immigration Law
History of Immigration in the United States
America truly is a nation of immigrants, however, as time has passed there is the feeling that the “welcome mat” once put out for immigrants has been put away. By the early 1600s European immigrants were settling on the East coast; the British in Virginia and England, the Swedes in Delaware, the Dutch in New York, and the Spanish in Florida. Some of these early settlers came for religious freedom, while others were seeking opportunities. Still others arrived in America against their will, as slaves.
It wasn’t until 1790 that the first laws were passed by Congress detailing who would be granted citizenship into the United States. At that time, “any free white person of good character who has been living in the United States for two years or more,” could apply for citizenship. Citizenship was important because without it, residents were denied protections detailed in the Constitution, such as the right to own property or to vote. This same year America counted its residents in the first census. At that time the English were the largest ethnic group.
Between 1820 and 1860, Irish Catholics came to America in a wave, accounting for almost a third of all immigrants to the nation. About 5 million Germans also made their way to America, with many of them finding their way to the Midwest. Because many immigrants were arriving sick, due to the terrible conditions they endured on ships as they crossed the Atlantic, immigrants were overwhelming major port cities, and better ship conditions were mandated.
The first anti-immigrant political party was formed in 1849 in response to the large number of German and Irish immigrants coming to the U.S. This party was known as the Know-Nothing Party. After the Civil War, there were immigration laws passed in 1875 by individual states—the Supreme Court squashed this by deciding it was the federal government’s responsibility alone to make and enforce immigration laws. The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882, barring Chinese immigrants from the U.S. By 1891, those convicted of specific crimes, those who were sick or diseased, and polygamists were all banned from entering the United States.
Ellis Island opened in 1892 and between that year and 1954 more than 12 million immigrants came to America through Ellis Island. In 1907 Japan agreed to limit Japanese immigration, and by 1917, a new Immigration Act required literacy for immigrants and halted immigration from most Asian countries. Another Immigration Act in 1924 limited the annual number of immigrants allowed to enter the U.S. The U.S. Border Patrol was established in 1924 as well, cracking down on undocumented migrants crossing the Canadian and Mexican borders.
During World War II and after (1942-1964), Mexican agricultural workers were allowed to temporarily enter the U.S. to combat labor shortages. About 38,000 Hungarian immigrants were admitted to the U.S. between 1956 and 1957 after a failed uprising against the Soviets, and about 14,000 unaccompanied children were admitted between 1960 and 1962 as they fled Fidel Castro’s Cuba. The Immigration and Nationality Act was completely overhauled in 1965, implementing a seven-category preference system for family reunification and specific skills.
In 1986 President Reagan granted amnesty to more than 3 million illegal immigrants and in 2012 President Obama signed the DACA Act, meant to shield “Dreamers” from deportation. By 2017 President Trump issued two executive orders that curtailed immigration from specific countries. Our current administration is struggling with a flood of unaccompanied minors fleeing terrible conditions in their own countries of origin.
The Path to U.S. Citizenship
Today, immigration laws are extremely complex. Not only is it difficult for most adults to understand our current immigration laws, but it’s also more difficult for immigrants to understand the laws and the pathways to citizenship. The general goal is to reunite immigrant families, protect refugees, promote diversity, and allow immigrants with valuable skills into the United States.
The law that governs immigration is known as the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). Under the INA the U.S. grants up to 675,000 permanent immigrant visas each year across a wide range of categories. Each year, the President of the United States must, in conjunction with Congress, set an annual number of refugees to be admitted to the United States.
When a person obtains an immigrant visa to come to the United States, they can become a lawful permanent resident (get a “green card”). Under certain circumstances, some unlawful immigrants can obtain LPR status through a process commonly known as “adjustment of status.” A person with LPR status is allowed to live and work lawfully and permanently in the United States, other than for certain jobs that are restricted to anyone except U.S. citizens.
Once a person with a green card has been in the United States for five years, he or she is eligible to apply for citizenship into the United States. You cannot apply for citizenship without first obtaining LPR status. A certain number of non-immigrant visas are also available each year—these could be given to temporary workers, to tourists, or to students, so long as the criteria for obtaining the visa are properly met.
Certain family members may be brought to the United States under the family preference system by a U.S. citizen or a Lawful Permanent resident. Standard eligibility and age requirements remain in place, and immediate relatives are only considered parents of a U.S. citizen (when the petitioner is at least 21 years old), unmarried minor children of a U.S. citizen (when they are under the age of 21), and spouses of U.S. citizens. The preference system includes unmarried and married children and brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens, as well as spouses and unmarried children of a Lawful Permanent Resident. In 2017, family-based immigrants comprised 66 percent of all new Lawful Permanent Residents in the United States.
Different Types of Immigration Status
If you were born in the United States, then no matter what country you grew up in, you are a United States citizen. If one of your parents was a U.S. citizen when you were born, you could be a U.S. citizen as well. As a United States citizen, you have the right to vote, work, and live in the United States, and you are eligible for certain federal benefits, including social service benefits, and loans for college. As a U.S. citizen, you cannot be forced to leave the United States.
A Lawful Permanent Resident is an immigrant with a green card who can live and work in the United States but is not a citizen, therefore, is not eligible for specific citizen benefits (voting, some social service programs). As a Lawful Permanent Resident, you are allowed to travel in and out of the country—within certain parameters. If you are convicted of certain criminal offenses, or you violate immigration law, you could potentially be deported from the United States.
If you are a visitor on a temporary visa, you have permission to live in the United States for a specific purpose and for a specific period of time. The purpose is usually tourism, visiting family members, working, or studying. If you fail to renew your visa prior to expiration, you could lose your legal immigration status. Finally, there is undocumented immigrant status. This means you do not have permission to live or work in the United States and could be deported at any time. If you are not a U.S. citizen, and you do not have a current visa or a green card, then you are considered an undocumented immigrant.
According to the Pew Research Center, the United States has more immigrants than any other country in the world, with 40 million people currently living in the United States born in another country. In fact, the U.S. accounts for almost one-fifth of the world’s migrants, and those in America represent virtually every country in the world. In 1970, less than 5 percent of the U.S. population were immigrants—a number that has almost tripled since that day. Even so, the record was set in 1890, when 9.2 million immigrants resided in America.
Undocumented immigrants account for almost a quarter of today’s foreign-born immigrants, with about 77 percent of immigrants being in the country legally. As of 2017, about 45 percent of immigrants were naturalized American citizens. Between the years 2007 and 2017, the number of unlawful immigrants from Mexico decreased by about 2 million, although the number of unlawful immigrants from Asia and Central America increased during the same period of time. Today, the majority of immigrants to the United States come from Mexico, China (including Macau, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Mongolia), India, the Philippines, and El Salvador.
If you are an unlawful immigrant in the United States and want to apply for LPR status, it is important that you speak to an experienced Pennsylvania immigration lawyer who can ensure you follow all the necessary steps toward getting your green card.