Primary tabs

Immigration refers to the movement of persons into a new country with the intention to reside in that country. This includes state sanctioned immigration (sometimes referred to as “legal immigration”) and unlawful immigration (sometimes referred to as “illegal immigration”). It does not include persons traveling to the country for an explicitly temporary purpose, such as tourists, students on exchange programs, temporary workers, or travelers passing through a country only as means to get to their intended destination (for example, entering the country for the purpose of catching a connecting flight to the destination country).  

In the United States, immigration is an area of federal oversight, although some states have passed laws intended to bolster the enforcement of existing federal immigration laws. Federal immigration law determines whether a person is an alien, as well as the rights, duties, and obligations associated with being an alien in the United States. It also provides the means by which aliens can become legally naturalized citizens with full rights of citizenship. 

Under the current US immigration process, intending immigrants must obtain permission from the United States government prior to entry. There are several methods of obtaining permission to settle in the United States. Refugees fleeing persecution in their country of origin may apply for refugee resettlement under the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). Those who wish to immigrate for other reasons must apply for an immigrant visa with the State Department.

While the United States offers a myriad of immigrant visas, most fit under one of five categories:

  • Immediate relative visas
  • Family preference visas
  • Diversity visas
  • Employment-based visas, 
  • Special immigrant visas for non-citizens formerly employed by the United States government or military. 

A more complete breakdown of immigrant visa categories can be found online on the State Department’s website.

The quantity of immigrant visas is controlled by Congress as outlined in the Immigration Act of 1990. This sets a limit on the number of total immigrant visas that may be issued, the number of immigrant visas of each type that can be issued, and the number of visas that can be issued to immigrants of any single country of origin. These limits are often the subject of criticism for being poorly suited to the needs of the United States.  

Those with immigrant visas may live and work in the United States, and may eventually apply to become a citizen, should they so choose. Immigrants who live in the United States without legal immigration status, referred to as undocumented immigrants, are generally not able to gain legal status or citizenship while they remain inside the United States. Although sometimes these individuals are referred to as illegal immigrants, that term is often considered pejorative. Undocumented immigrants risk facing deportation from the United States unless they make a valid asylum claim or receive temporary protected status

[Last updated in June of 2023 by the Wex Definitions Team]