How to Immigrate Legally

There’s a lot of debate now, with the upcoming election, on immigration to the United States. It’s clear from the discussion that many people don’t know what the legal immigration process to the US actually is, so here’s my story.

I’m a US citizen, from Minnesota. Several years ago, I moved overseas. I got married. Not long ago, we decided that we wanted to move to the United States, and I became the visa sponsor for my husband. Keep in mind that our case is easy: as a US citizen, I can sponsor relatives to come to the US. Immediate relatives (such as your spouse) aren’t subject to a limit on the number of visas granted, so we didn’t have to wait in line. Additionally, in our case, the type of immigrant visa that I sponsored is the best type: it becomes a green card immediately. Many of the visa categories require several years of residence in the US before the visa holder can apply to be a permanent resident. So our case is, in many ways, the easiest possible case.

Here’s how you immigrate legally:

  1. Be sure you even qualify for one of the visa categories. My husband was eligible as immediate relative of a US citizen. However, there are other categories available. Good luck, though. The employment based immigrant visa categories are for “persons with extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, athletics,” “outstanding professors and researchers,” “multinational managers or executives,” etc. Or, you’ll need to have a job waiting for you on an intracompany transfer visa or an H1B.
  2. Assuming you fit into one of the visa categories, request to apply for a visa. In our case, this application was 80 pages long and contained documentation on both of us plus proof of our marriage, our rental contract, our joint car insurance, bank statements, employment statements, letters from friends who knew us, photocopies of our wedding invitation, birth certificates, a copy of every page of all of our passports, military records, etc. There’s a fee for filing this.
  3. All of this paperwork gets sent to a processor at US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The wait can be weeks/months/years depending on the visa category (spouse of US citizen/H1B/other relative, respectively). Once a visa is available (or, if you don’t have to wait for a visa to become available, such as in the case of your spouse, you get a notice in the mail.
  4. The notice in the mail will request an affidavit of financial support. What this means is that you need to document income or assets that are based in the United States that exceed some percentage (I think 125%) of the federal poverty guidelines for your family size. This income must be documented for three years (ie three years of tax returns). If your income is not US-based (like mine was not), then you need to file this form and have someone in the US file the form and sponsor your immigrant as well. My mother did it, in my case. This second sponsor also needs to send in three years of tax returns. The purpose of this is that if your immigrant takes any public assistance in the first several years of their life in the US, the US government can seize these assets to offset every dollar. There’s a fee for this form as well.
  5. If the processor at USCIS accepts your affadavit of financial support, you are now able to apply for the visa (wait? didn’t I do that already?). There is a separate visa application form that is filled out at this point that requires more paperwork and second copies of a lot of the paperwork that was already sent in.
  6. Pass a background check. The US Embassy and USCIS require that the local police from everywhere you’ve lived since age 16 contact them with a police report or a report that there is no police report. I think USCIS themselves also run every name through the various US government databases of people of interest.
  7. After USCIS has gone through your finances, you need a medical checkup. You have to go to the doctor designated by your local US Embassy or Consulate (and they charge an arm and a leg since there’s only one of them per country or so). You’ll need a chest x-ray, blood work, vaccinations so that you’re on the CDC vaccination schedule (and no, they don’t accept waivers due to ideological reasons, only health ones, in case you were wondering). The physical also requires that you pull down your shorts so that the doctor can get a good look at your nether-regions. So quite literally by this point, the US government or its appointed representatives have been in everything from your bank account to your boxer shorts.
  8. All of this info goes to USCIS who then schedules an interview at the nearest available US Consulate or Embassy, which may or may not be anywhere near you (ours was three hours away) and may or may not be on a day when you don’t have to work or something (my husband returned from a transatlantic business trip at 2am on the day of his 8am interview). Of course, you could “reschedule” but rescheduling is handled by the USCIS office in the US so I’m not sure anyone does.
  9. At this point, you’re interviewed by a US consular representative. They have the ultimate power to approve or deny the visa. If the visa is issued, they’ll take your passport and the visa will come in the mail a few days later (of course, you pay for the visa fee, the biometrics fee, and the mailing).

Now, I just went through all of this as an immigrant sponsor less than a year ago. I estimate that it took upwards of 100 hours of my time to assemble documents, to get them translated, and to fill out the paperwork. The fees (visa application fee, financial affadavit fee, visa request fee, visa issue fee, green card fee, biometrics fee, mailing, medical checkup, vaccines, expenses incurred in visiting the US consulate) added up to around $4K.

It’s not “we don’t know who they are” when the government has quite literally inspected everything from your school records to inside your lungs. Immigrating legally is not just filling out some web form and paying $20. If we’re going to have this debate in the US on immigration (and we should), we should at least know what the process currently involves. We can’t call for more screening if we don’t know the current screening, for example.

It was worth every hour and every penny to live in these United States, and I hope that this post helps clarify what the current immigration process is for legal immigrants.

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