Legal immigration to the United States occurs through an alphabet soup of visa categories, but a small number of pathways. Family relationships, ties to employers, or the need for humanitarian protection are the top channels for immigrants seeking temporary or permanent U.S. residence. And to a lesser extent, people can come if they possess sought-after skills or are selected in the green-card lottery. Visa categories have varying requirements, are subject to different numerical caps, and offer differing rights and responsibilities.

By Julia Gelatt

oday’s legal immigration system, which rests on laws enacted in 1965 and 1990, has two main visa categories: permanent visas (formally known as immigrant visas) and temporary ones (nonimmigrant visas).

Permanent Immigration

Immigrants seeking permanent residence in the United States apply for a green card, the informal term for lawful permanent resident (LPR) status. LPRs are allowed to remain indefinitely, provided they are not convicted of a crime that makes them removable. They can apply for U.S. citizenship after five years, or three years if they marry a U.S. citizen.

In recent years, the United States has granted about 1 million green cards annually; while the share varies a bit from year to year, roughly half are given to immigrants already in the United States who are adjusting from another status (for example temporary worker or student). The remainder go to applicants outside the United States. In both cases, the majority of these visas require sponsorship by a relative or employer.

Family reunification has long had a central role in the U.S. immigration system, more so than some other major immigrant-receiving countries. (Family migration accounts for about 40 percent of all permanent immigration across Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries). While the share varies from year to year, roughly two-thirds of legal immigration to the United States is on the basis of family ties, with the rest divided between employment-based and humanitarian immigration and those arriving through the green-card lottery (also called the diversity visa).

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