The Immigration Process in the United States

immigration process

Before I finally discuss the five problems we are trying to solve with immigration, I want to look at the actual immigration process in the United States.

Politicians and pundits like to bemoan the ease with which dangerous immigrants slip across our borders.  The truth of the matter is our immigration process is anything but easy.  Whether immigrants are arriving for work, to reconnect with families already in the country, as refugees, or with plans to become U.S. citizens, their journey is long and arduous.

Immigrant Visas

The U.S. State Department has done a good job of outlining the process by which immigrants can obtain a visa.  Click here to see the pathways available to immigrants and the immigration process they must follow.

Visa Overstays

One point that deserves scrutiny on this topic is the idea that many people stay in the U.S. illegally by overstaying their visas.  Politicians and pundits often cite the statistic that 40% of people in the country illegally have overstayed their visas.  Marco Rubio is one example.

There are two problems with this assertion.  The first is the sheer difficulty of actually gathering this data.  No current measurements completely capture all visa overstays.  In many ways, this is a simple matter of updated measurement processes within our government.  Still, this is a tough number to capture considering the many ways one can enter the U.S. by air, land, and sea.

The other problem with this statistic is the age of the data.  It comes from a 2006 report from the Pew Research Center relying on data from 1997.  In Pew’s defense, they did not really have a choice.  No government or private entity actually measured the number of visa overstays from 1997 to 2016.

The latest report completed by the Department of Homeland Security in early 2016 actually found much smaller numbers of visa overstays.  From October 2014 to September 2015, 527,127 people overstayed their visas in the U.S  As of January 2016,  only 416,500 of these people still remained in the U.S.

Becoming a United States Citizen

Another step in the journey for many immigrants is applying for U.S. citizenship.  This process is also anything but easy.  For a good look at all this entails, watch this video below.


Entering the United States as a refugee is the immigration process receiving the most attention in recent months.  This was a centerpiece of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and remains prominent in his administration’s plans.

One of the best breakdowns of this subject actually comes from John Oliver on Last Week Tonight.  The entire video below is worth watching, but he specifically discusses how the U.S. “vets” refugees from minutes 5:01-6:40.

For a closer look, visit this State Department page where they outline the full process for admitting refugees into the U.S.

Many people have skewed the facts about refugees in the U.S.  This fact sheet from the Migration Policy Institute will help you to differentiate between fact and fiction on this subject.

As with every important policy subject in our country, the only true way to look for solutions to problems is to discuss those problems factually.  Hopefully, this information helps you see the facts for what they truly are.

Next up, I will finally discuss potential solutions for the problems we perceive with immigration in the United States.

Unauthorized Immigration: The Storm of Our Own Making



unauthorized immigration

As the new wave of legal immigration swept through the United States in the middle of the 20th Century, another wave picked up speed.  Changes in immigration policies coupled with changes in migration flows throughout the world led to a decades-long increase in unauthorized immigration in the U.S.

As of the latest count, approximately 11 million unauthorized immigrants live in the U.S.  Around 71% of these individuals are from Mexico and Central America.  Six million of them (56%) come from Mexico alone.  Around 1.5 million unauthorized immigrants, or 14%, come from Asian countries.

This population grew rapidly during the 1990s and early 2000s, increasing by approximately 5 million people before peaking in 2007.  Since then, the numbers have actually declined.  Unauthorized immigration from Mexico has dropped significantly since 2007.  At this point, the unauthorized population growing at the fastest rate is actually from India.


The remarkable growth of unauthorized immigration into the country began with significant policy changes in the middle of the 20th Century.

Before the 1940s and 50s, immigration from Latin America to the U.S. was very limited.  The Great Depression decreased demand in the labor market, and few people crossed our southern border looking for work.

When the U.S. entered World War II, however, the country needed more workers to fill the labor shortages left by soldiers fighting overseas.  To combat these shortages, the U.S. and Mexico signed a formal agreement in 1942 to incentivize temporary migrant workers to come to the U.S.  This was the Bracero Program.  For the next 20 years, this program built an entirely new economic system for the agricultural workforce in the U.S.

The Bracero Program increased demand for low-wage foreign workers within the U.S. agricultural industry.  It also increased demand for such work in Mexico.  As Rosenblum and Brick put it,

“Entire communities in Mexico came to rely on emigration as their primary source of employment, and an industry of labor contractors emerged on both sides of the border to match willing workers with employers.  Migration was now structurally embedded in the social and economic systems of a growing group of migrant-sending and migrant-receiving communities.”

An Abrupt End, a New Beginning

Demand for a migrant workforce on both sides of the border remained steady for decades. Despite this, President Kennedy capitulated to pressure from Democrats and worker’s rights groups to abruptly end the Bracero Program in 1964.

Though this program ended, the demand remained.  As is the case today, farmers could not find U.S. citizens to fill the jobs popular with migrant workers.  So, migrant workers continued to cross the border illegally to look for work.

A perfect storm began to brew for illegal immigration.  Congress had exempted certain businesses from liability for hiring unauthorized immigrants in the 1950s.  This left plenty of incentive for employers to keep hiring such workers.

Then, the passage of the Immigration and Nationalization Act in 1965 limited the number of work visas approved.  Later, in the 1970s, Congress introduced more limits on immigration in general and long lines formed for visas.  Finally, political and economic upheaval engulfed Latin America.

A steady flow of unauthorized immigration ensued and remained through the beginning of the 21st Century.  The only power able to stop it came in the form of the Great Recession.

Turning Away

The evidence demonstrates that United States policy contributed significantly to this wave of unauthorized immigration in the last 50 years.  Yet, the U.S. public and our lawmakers struggle to accept this truth.

Instead, the large majority of laws related to immigration since the 1960s have focused on enforcement.  We have not created policies that have allowed us to envision immigration in a different way.  We are patching the holes in our system rather than truly solving the problem.

In first week of September of 2001, President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox reached the beginnings of an agreement on major immigration reform.  Unfortunately, the attacks of September 11 halted that reform and turned the focus right back to enforcement.

Our ability to understand unauthorized immigration in the United States requires an understanding of history.  Armed with such an understanding, we have the ability to see there is more to the story of unauthorized immigration than many people would have us believe.