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US immigration from visa to citizenship

US immigration from visa to citizenship

As a person reading this blog overseas, you might be wondering whether you may be able to live and work in the United States one day. I am here to tell you that it is very much possible. Thousands of people either embark or complete this journey every year. To be precise, according to Visa Office of US Department of State, there were over half a million immigrant visas issues in 2018:

  • 236,000 for immediate family members of immigrants – these are spouses and children of people who were granted immigrant status
  • 211,000 for immigrants based on family path – spouses, children, parents, siblings of US citizens
  • 27,000 for employment-based immigration – people who were sponsored by their US employer to obtain immigration status
  • 48,000 for immigrants based on diversity lottery – people randomly selected from the countries in the world, reversely proportional to the number of people who immigrate from those countries.

People are considered to be immigrants once they get their green cards, rather than US citizenship. Some people live their entire lives in the US on green cards never applying for citizenship. Path from a green card to citizenship is individual choice and is not tracked by statistic above.

There are a few paths to immigrate into the United States legally. Odds are, if you really want, you will be able to immigrate, one way or another. Full list of visa categories is available on US Department of State web site, but I’ll talk to non-immigrant visas that have a path to immigrant status:

  • L-1 – visa issued to an employee of the company that is being transferred into the US after he or she has been with the company at least 18 months. This visa is issued for 3 years and can be renewed once for 2 more years, after which, individual must leave the united state. However, during these 5 years, company employee is allowed to start immigration process and eventually adjust status.
  • L-4 visa issued to a spouse of L-1 holder. Holder of this visa is allowed to seek employment in the united states and can participate in immigration process with L-1 spouse. L-4 must file for Employment Authorization Document (EAD) to work as long as L-1 visa holder is staying inside the United States.
  • H-1B – this is a primary work visa in the United States. You can’t apply for it yourself, unfortunately. A US employer must petition US government to issue a H-1B visa for you. Just like L-1, this is a “dual-intent” visa, meaning, it is a non-immigrant visa, but you will not be denied entry in the US if you declare immigration intent to the border officer. You can file for adjustment of status on this visa.
  • H-4B – visa issued to a spouse of H-1B visa holder. This visa does not have work authorization, unlike L-4, so your spouse will not be able to work, unless he or she finds an employer who will sponsor separate H-1B visa.

Among immigrant visas, most typical immigration paths are:

  • Investors – if you would like to put $500,000 or more into a business in the US, you will be able to come and oversee your business here.
  • Diversity lottery – US government runs a program that gives away green cards to people who participate and are randomly selected by computer each year. Anyone can sign up to participate. Countries with low immigration rates have very good chances to win green cards.
  • Spouse of a US citizen – if you happen to marry a US citizen, you can apply for a green card and join your husband or wife in the US.
  • Fianc√© to marry a US citizen – you can come the US with intent to marry a US citizen. Once you get married, you can adjust your status to immigrant.
  • Family members of US citizens or permanent residents – if one of your immediate family members (parent, sibling or a child) is a US citizen, you may be able to ask him or her to sponsor you to immigrate into the US.
  • Religious workers – it is less common, but I have met a few people who immigrated through their church. Basic idea is that there are no American citizens that can service your faith and you are required to support community in the US.

Full list of immigration paths is broader than the one above, but these are most common ways people become immigrants. No matter which path you chose, you should consult an immigration lawyer for advise.

This post will focus specifically on employment-based immigration as it is most perilous.

H-1B Petition

To be begin employment-based immigration journey into the US your first objective is to find an employer who will sponsor you. You cannot sponsor yourself. Your best bet is to go with a large company like Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Salesforce, Facebook, etc. In fact, I wrote an article on how to approach interview with them. These companies hire full time employees, pay them good money and help with immigration process.

A word of cation – there are “bodyshops” that also sponsor H-1B visas. They pay very little, do not support path to green card, and generally, re-sell your services to bigger companies. They are contractors and do not have their own products. Their employees are miserable and sometimes give up and return back to their home countries. You should check with US immigration forum, like Trackitt, before accepting an offer from the company you do not know.

Once you accept an offer, your US employer will start preparing a petition to USCIS to grant you a work visa. There are 50,000 visas issued annually and a lot more people apply, so this turns into a lottery. Petition filing window opens every year on April 1 and closes when USCIS receives 50,000 applications. In recent years, entire quota has been exceeded on the first day of filing and closed. So if your employer missed a window, you would have to wait for another year. It sucks.

Employers typically take 3 months to prepare all paperwork for filing. Backtracking from filing due date, you should have a signed offer by January 1. If you haven’t finalized everything by this date or you have found an employer too late and it is already February on the street, you may not have enough time to file paperwork and will have to wait another year. It sucks.

Once all petitions are received, US government will run a lottery and randomly select petitions for processing. Those that were not selected, will be rejected and sent back to employers. If you are one of those people, you will have to wait for another year. It sucks.

If you are lucky and get your petition selected for processing, it may take 3 – 6 months to get the verdict. To get a response quicker your employer can file with Premium Processing. USCIS guarantees to process petition within 15 days, but it costs $1,440, so not every employer is willing to pay for it.

USCIS can choose to ask for more evidence to support your case, it is called RFE (Request For Evidence). If you get one – do not fret, it is pretty common. Just give the government what they want and wait. In most cases you’ll be fine and have your petition approved.

This part of immigration journey can be described in simple words as follows: “Hey US government, I am a US employer and I can’t find anyone to do my job. I’d like to bring this foreign national temporarily to help me out”.

If you are paying attention, so far your immigration journey lasted 6 months.

H-1B Visa

Upon petition approval, you will get a package in the mail from your employer’s lawyers with all supporting documentation to go get a visa stamped at the US embassy. You will schedule an appointment at the embassy in the country of your residence, show up with the papers, do the interview (answer questions about your education and employment history) and, in most cases, get your visa stamped.

There are cases where US embassy takes your passport and puts it through “administrative processing”. It is a mysterious background check that can last from 2 weeks to 6 months. I haven’t been able to find details on it, but statistically speaking, it is less likely for people from Europe, and more likely for people from Asia and India. If you are stuck in this phase you have to wait, there is not much you can do.

I have heard people contacted US senators in the states of their future residence and getting help pushing their cases through, however this not something I’d recommend doing. You are not a constituent yet and will likely be ignored. However, if you are desperate, I guess it can’t hurt, can it?

Once you get your visa in hand, you can begin employment. Officially, you can’t arrive in the US until September 1 of the year when petition was approved, so book your flight after this date.

This part of the journey can be described as “Hey US government, I am that foreign national who you approved to come to the US to help that employer with his business temporarily”.

If everything goes perfect, your immigration journey would have lasted 9 months to this point.

PERM Labor Certification

Technically, this is the beginning of immigration process for US government. Your employer must file a PERM certification and signal to the USCIS that they intends to keep you forever. To begin the process your employer will take approximately 3 months of paperwork on their end.

Objective of this phase is to prove to US government that no American citizen or green card holder is infringed upon by you. Your employer must prove that they city/county of employment very hard for 30 days but weren’t able to find anyone. As such, they were forced to bring you into the US as a last resort. This phase exists to protect US labor and keep wages in check.

Once paperwork is filed with the Department of Labor, it usually takes approximately 6 months to complete. You may get one or even two RFEs in the process, so reply to them promptly, or you’ll be delaying your own process.

When PERM is approved, it gives you no special powers. It is just a pre-requisite for the next phase of immigration process. If you are fired by your employer after this phase, your certification is lost and next time you’d have to redo it again.

To put this phase of immigration process in simple terms – “Hey US government, I am a US employer who brought this foreign national to help me out temporarily. I still can’t find anyone else to do his job so I would like to check if you don’t mind me keeping him here forever.”.

Most typically, your immigration journey would be at 1.5 years mark by this point, since you started back in home country.

I-140 Immigrant Petition

Your employer needs to prepare and file I-140 for you. The goal of this petition is to associate a particular individual with a particular job at a specific company in a given location on permanent basis. And here you thought US abolished slavery, didn’t you? We are covering employment-based which is predicated on someone staying with the same sponsoring employer indefinitely. If your employment is terminated before, during or after this phase for whatever reason, you lose your immigration benefit, unless you transfer it to another employer in the same location within short period of time. I have seen different numbers being quoted from 45 days to 90 days and I have also seen people losing benefits, depending on adjudicating office and officer. If you want to leave one employer and join another, you can transfer I-140 to new employer if it has been approved for over 180 days.

This petition can be filed immediately after PERM certification approval. There is no minimum waiting period so most employers begin right away. There is some time needed to prepare paperwork though, which depends on how fast the lawyers are. I’d ballpark filing delay to 3 months on average.

Immigrant petition includes family members of the primary applicant. If you are here with your spouse – she needs to be listed in this petition to be eligible for immigration benefit.

This particular petition is significant in a few ways:

  1. Date when your immigrant petition is approved becomes your priority date for adjustment of status. We’ll talk about it later in the article.
  2. You can renew H-1B or L-1 indefinitely with approved I-140 as long as your priority date for adjustment of status is not current.
  3. Your spouse, who is on L-4 or H-4 can file for Employment Authorization Document and look for a job.

Approved I-140 petition makes you an immigrant. A word of caution – if you were to leave your employer shortly after getting I-140 approved, you can run into trouble later during adjustment of status. You were declared an immigrant based on premise of permanent employment by a given US company. If you leave, that statement becomes invalid. There have been cases of people getting their green cards denied because they left their employer too quickly after getting approved.

Typical processing time for this petition is 8 months after filing. You can check latest processing times by service center on USCIS web site.

To recap the gist of this phase in simple words – “Hey US government, I am a US employer who will be keeping this foreign individual in this job forever”.

I would take you about 2 years and 5 months to reach this point since you started in your home country.

I-485 Adjustment of Status

Many people in immigration process dream of completing their adjustment of status and taking a break from constant stress of the paperwork. Up until this application is approved, you are an immigrant with temporary status in the US. Once your I-485 is approved you become a Legal Permanent Resident and get a green card.

Just like all petitions we covered, this one must be filed by your employer. Unlike petitions we covered, this application is focused on you, the applicant, and your family. Your job takes secondary place here. US government screens you through a bunch of databases to ensure:

  • You are who you claim you are
  • You are not going to be a burden on society by living on public assistance
  • You and your family are not criminals (in various forms, shapes and sizes – pretty elaborate list)
  • You have not violated immigration laws of the United States
  • Your moral compass aligns with the principles and values of the United States

For most hard working individuals this will not be an issue. The hardest part is ability to actually file paperwork. That’s where most of the people spend their time.

In order to be eligible to file for adjustment of status, your priority date must be current. US immigration queue is so backlogged that for many people, priority date is not current. In fact, it is many years in the past, which means, they can only wait and keep renewing their H-1Bs.

USCIS publishes monthly Visa Bulletin where each category has priority date listed. As USCIS processes adjustment of status applications for a given category, it’s priority date moves into the future bit by bit. To be eligible to file, your I-140 approval date must be before listed date on Visa Bulletin. If you file with priority on or after list date, USCIS mailbox will reject your application without processing.

Here’s how to read Visa Bulletin. Let’s say you are Chinese individual in 3rd preference category of employment-based immigration. (EB1 – worldwide know scientist, published individuals, distinguished professors; EB2 – holders of Masters degree + 6 months of work experience, EB3 – holders of Bachelor’s degree + 5 years of work experience). If intersection of EB3 and China – Mainland Born says “C” – you can file the month when the Visa Bulletin is published. If it has a date, you have to compare the date listed in the bulletin to the date of your I-140 approval. If your date of approval is in the “past” relative to the date mentioned – you can file, if not – you have to wait.

If you notice, some categories are so regressed that it is not even funny. For example, February 2020 bulletin lists EB3 for India is January 08, 2009. It means that only people who had their I-140 approved priori to that date can file. Since it is January 2020 at the time of publishing this article, those individual would have been waiting for over 11 years to file.

The reason for such retrogression in certain categories is that US government allocates about 2,803 immigrant visas per country per year. If country has a large number of immigrants, they consume all visas for the year and the date is adjusted by US government to the point where no one new can file. As new year begins and new quota becomes available, US government moves the dates forward.

If your dates are current at the time of filing but the date retrogresses while your application is pending, USCIS will shelve your application and stop working on it until the date becomes current again.

Assuming your dates are current all the way from the filing to adjudication, you can expect your application to take up to 2 years to be approved.

Here’s this phase of immigration process in simple terms – “Hey US government, I am a US employer for this specific individual, which you approved to stay here forever. Now I’d like him to become a permanent resident and continue working for me.”

Your end-to-end immigration journey would be:

  • India – 15 years and 5 months
  • China mainland – 8 years and 11 month
  • Philippines – 6 years and 5 months
  • The rest of the countries in the world – 4 years and 5 months

Green Card

Congratulations, you are now officially an immigrant in the US and you have a piece of plastic that looks like this:

Sample green card image
(Not a real green card)

Now you have the following freedoms:

  • Live anywhere in the US.
  • Travel in and out of the country unrestricted, as long as any trip is less than 6 months every year.
  • Work for anyone you want.
  • Start your business.
  • Apply for Social Security and Medicate benefits in retirement.
  • Vote in local elections.
  • Enter US through separate immigration lines at the airports.

Green card is issued for 10 years and must be renewed. If you physically lose a piece of plastic you must file for a replacement but you do not lose your status.

For most people, this is the end of immigration journey. Not everyone feels that they need US citizenship, nor not all countries allow dual citizenship with the US.

If you are determined to go all the way through citizenship, then you must wait 5 years before you can apply. This is a requirement by USCIS before you can establish legal grounds for naturalization. It is 3 years if you got your green card through marriage to a US citizen.

While you’re a green card, it is important to obey the laws of the United States, or your status can be revoked and you will be deported. Until you actually become a citizen, you are deportable. A few things to pay attention to:

  • Pay your taxes every year and make sure IRS is happy. You will not be able to naturalize with tax problems.
  • Do not do anything stupid with your car (like reckless driving). It can ruin your naturalization timeline.
  • Do not vote in federal elections. This will pretty-much make you non-naturalizable.
  • Do not get involved with guns, drugs or anything shady. Stay focused on your job and grow filthy rich.
  • Do not leave the country for more than 6 months. If you do, you can be considered to abandon your permanent resident status and you can lose your green card. If you have to leave – notify USCIS and request Advance Parole.
  • Make sure you relinquish ties to other potential places of residence. It is OK to have bank accounts and rental property utside of US, but there may be things that require residence to maintain. Check with your lawyer.

So to describe this period in simple words – “Hey US government, I am just living my typical run off the mill life without doing anything eventful”.

Here’s how your immigration timeline would look like for different countries of origin:

  • India – 20 years and 5 months
  • China mainland – 13 years and 11 month
  • Philippines – 11 years and 5 months
  • The rest of the countries in the world – 9 years and 5 months

N-400 Naturalization

You’ve been living in the US for about a decade by this time and had enough time to contemplate citizenship question. At this point your employer is no longer involved and naturalization is purely between you and the US government. You can get a lawyer to help you, or you can do it yourself, like thousands of immigrants. Instructions are pretty straightforward.

The earliest you can file is 90 days prior to your 5 years of being a Legal Permanent Resident. If you got your green card on April 15, 2020 the earliest you can file is January 16, 2020.

Naturalization is strictly individual choice, meaning, just because you choice to naturalize, it will automatically naturalize your spouse. He or she has to file separately for naturalization but you can file together and request to be adjudicated together. Your children may become US citizens automatically if they are under 18 years old at the time of your application approval.

To file, on top of a completed N-400 form, you need a few more things:

  • Check for $750.
  • Copy of your green card.
  • Copy of your driver’s license.
  • Tax transcripts from IRS for the past 5 years.
  • Copies of international travel documents for the past 5 years.
  • Court records from driving tickets, if you went to court.

When USCIS accepts your application, it will schedule biometrics within 2 weeks of filing. You will show up and they’ll take your fingerprints and photographs.

USCIS will go dark for about 1 year and then emerge by sending you an invitation to interview. If USCIS field office is overloaded with cases, it may take up to 18 months. During interview you will meet your adjudicating officer who will test you:

  • Go through your application declarations under oath, line by line, and make sure your answers haven’t changed since you filed.
  • Administer a basic English reading test by showing you the sentence which you’ll have to read (for example – “Washington is one of many states of the United States”)
  • Test basic English writing test by asking you to write a sentence

Interview will conclude with your pledge to bear arms for the United States and perform duties as required by law. Total interview time is 15 minutes.

If everything is smooth, you will have your naturalization ceremony scheduled the same day in the afternoon. When you return, they will take your green card, walk you and a bunch of other people in to a room, conduct the ceremony, hand you a certificate of naturalization and let you go. You do not get the passport – for that you have to apply yourself at the Department of State office or nearest USPS office processing passports.

At this point, you are a US citizen and your scope of rights has expanded. To describe this process in simple language – “Hey US government, I live like an American, talk like an American, think like an American, I’d like to become one officially.”

Total immigration journey duration for different countries of origin by this point in time:

  • India – 22 years
  • China mainland – 15 years
  • Philippines – 13 years
  • The rest of the countries in the world – 11 years

Citizenship

Now that you’re a citizen, there are a few more things you can do that you weren’t able to do as a green card holder:

  • Legally own a firearm and apply for concealed carry permit.
  • Work in law enforcement.
  • Run for federal office (except president).
  • Apply for security clearance if required by job
  • Be on jury on the court of law.
  • Support or organize a political movement.
  • Express yourself and tell your elected officials your opinion (senators, representatives, state and city council members).

You can also apply for documents that simplify your traveller life:

  • Global entry to streamline airport security
  • Enhanced Driver License that proves your citizenship and serves as a valid identification to enter the country or board a plane
  • Nexus card to enter Canada via special lane

Once you’ve reached this point, you have the same rights and freedoms as Americans bourn in this country. What you make of it is really up to you.