As most people around the world know, America is split when it comes to immigration. One part of the country remembers that America is a country of immigrants. Even the oldest inhabitants came here from Asia, tens of thousands of years ago. To prevent people from entering the country, these people say, is unfair to them and to America, which has always benefited from successive waves of immigration.
On the other hand, many people feel threatened in their livelihood and in the vision of a unified America by waves of immigration. That was true at the end of the 19th Century, when many though Chinese immigration had swamped the country in the West. Now it is mostly Latino immigration that is of concern to some.
The discussion about immigration itself has become muddied, in that cross-border traffic has been linked with the drug trade and with illegal attempts to cross the border. Since 9/11, the situation has been complicated by the threat of terrorism.
Lastly for the introduction, America is a wonderful democracy. Like all functioning democracies (there aren’t many in the world) it works very well when it comes to regulating the functioning of the voting society. Like all functioning democracies, though, it works extremely poorly when it comes to regulating the functioning of the non-voting. That’s true for laws concerning children, minorities, and non-citizens.
American immigration law is a monstrous muddle, because the people it rules (the immigrants) are not the people that voted it in place. As much as I love American society and the legal system, I fear and loathe its immigration component.
If you want to move to America, you have to keep current, since laws change all the time. There are arbitrary caps imposed, arbitrary waiting periods, arbitrary exclusionary rules. Unlike American society at large, which is dominated by pragmatism, immigration is intentionally arbitrary.
Still, for some time there have been several venues (for Europeans, at least) that have remained steadily available. I am listing them here in no particular order.
- Skilled Immigration. If you have a college degree in a field for which there is a current shortage in America, you may apply for a skilled visa. You will generally have to find an employer ahead of time, which is not particularly easy. Hiring a skilled immigrant is expensive, time-consuming, and frowned upon. If you are in a STEM field (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) or in the medical profession, though, you have a good chance. Formally, these visa are short-term, but in a majority of cases an application for permanent residence is granted.
- Family Sponsorship. If you have a close relative with permanent residence (either from citizenship or a Green Card), she or he can sponsor your own application for residence. This is a very slow, expensive, and lengthy process that depends on proximity of relationship and type of sponsor (Green Card sponsors are slower than citizens). The benefit is that you get permanent residence without any consideration of your job skills.
- Green Card Lottery. This is the fastest way to get a Green Card: win the annual lottery and move to America the next year! The idea behind the lottery is that immigration into the country is dominated by very few nations (currently, India, China, the Philippines, Mexico, and a few others). In the interest of diversity, America wants to grant visa to nationalities that do not heavily immigrate (like most European countries). If you are in one of the countries, it doesn’t hurt to send a submission. It’s not expensive, it’s not hard to do, and if you are lucky, you’ll be a legal resident in no time! The only caveat is that the setup of the lottery is somewhat sketchy: there is no way to check the status of your application, and there are oodles of disqualifying formalities, like the size of the envelope and such. You’d never know if you even entered, and I would not be surprised if there was a scandal involving this lottery.
- Marriage. If you marry a citizen or Green Card holder (permanent resident), you almost automatically receive permanent resident status yourself. For a while, there was a thriving market in “Green Card marriages,” where you would formally marry an American citizen (you barely knew, or didn’t know at all) for a Green Card. You’d sometimes pay money or take advantage of someone’s charitable nature. The downsides are huge: a Green Card marriage is illegal for both parties, the immigration authorities actively investigate marriages they consider suspect (in sometimes bizarre ways), and the Green Card can be revoked retroactively if the marriage is dissolved or it turns out to have been a sham. Don’t do it.
- Tourism. If you want to stay short-term, as I did to see if I like the country, you can apply for a tourist visa. America is pretty generous with those. They are typically granted for stays up to three months – but you have to apply in advance. Some countries (most European ones) had visa waiver programs, where you could get a visa on the plane. I think that’s been abolished, and even if you get an automatic grant, you have to apply well in advance of your flight.
- Business. If you have money to invest, America wants you here! In one of the stranger classes of immigration, if you bring sufficient amounts of money and promise to create jobs, you get a Green Card. Some would call it “rich people law.” The amounts of money we are talking about are fairly large, so you probably don’t qualify. Sorry!
- Education. This one actually works reliably! In a variant of “rich people visa” and “tourism visa,” if you enroll at a United States institution of education you have a good chance of being granted a student visa. Student visa come with restrictions as to the employment you can get and are limited to the duration of your education. They work well because they bring money – from college tuition, mostly – and hence have a U.S.-side pressure group. Indeed, they work so well and so reliably, they were the tool of choice of the 9/11 terrorists.
- Fame. People that are outstandingly famous in their field can get easy immigration. Outstandingly famous is, of course, relative. The way this class of visa seems to work is that if you have a high-enough sponsor, you are outstandingly famous. Knowing people in Congress seems to work best, but college professors, media types, and local political figures seem to be just as good at times.