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.

The Faces of New Immigration

new immigration
Photo by Ludovic Bertron

When the new Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 passed through Congress with strong bi-partisan support, lawmakers and their constituents had no idea they had just laid the groundwork for the most significant demographic shift in United States history since the discovery of the New World.

As Congress debated this new immigration policy, there were still those who wanted to keep the status quo.  One such group successfully amended the law with the intention of retaining the primarily Anglo-Saxon, European composition of new immigrants.

They added a last-minute provision stating that people with family members already living in the U.S. would have priority status.  They reasoned this would keep people of other nationalities and races from easily entering the country.

This provision ironically became one of the catalysts for the new immigration of the last four decades.  As the geopolitical winds shifted, the flow of immigration from European countries slowed to a trickle.  In its place came a wave of new immigration from countries in the Western Hemisphere, specifically in Latin America.  As these countries emerged from the bonds of colonialism and faced political and economic upheaval, their citizens looked to the U.S. for freedom and stability.

 The Faces in the Wave

It is hard to get a true sense of just how dramatic this new immigration shift was without seeing it in pictures.  Take a look at this timeline of immigration since 1850.  Here you see the steady climb in numbers of immigrants to the U.S. from 1850-1930.  After that, a steady decline in numbers and share of the population ensued.  Then, starting in 1965 we see the numbers rocket upward and the population share climb by nearly 10%.

Now take a look at this map.  Here you see the top country of origin of immigrants in each state going back to 1850.  This illustration shows just how dramatic this shift has been.  The wave of change over this time is absolutely stunning.

In 1965, white people of European descent made up 84% of the U.S. population, whereas people of Hispanic origin comprised 4% and people from Asia were less than 1%.  Now, whites make up 62%, Hispanics 18%, and Asians 6%.  These numbers are set to change even more in the next fifty years.

It is important to state here that most of the immigrants entering the country since 1965 have done so legally.  Legal immigration doubled in the two decades following 1965 and then tripled from 1989 to 1991.  That tripling followed a new law in 1986 that introduced new pathways to legalized immigration for people who had entered the country illegally.

Another important fact is the educational levels of new immigrants have steadily improved since the 1970s.  As of 2013, 41% of new immigrants were college graduates, whereas that number was only 20% in 1970.  For native-born citizens, those numbers are 30% and 11%, respectively.

New Immigration of Unintended Consequences

To recap, legal immigration into the United States changed dramatically beginning in 1965.  This shift occurred when a confluence of events completely changed the immigration landscape of the country.  The new immigration law, greater prosperity and stability in Europe, and a new door of entry for Latin American immigrants escaping the turmoil in their homelands combined to form a new immigration unlike any in our history.

There is one more chapter to this story, however.  Not only did our lawmakers and citizens of 1965 fail to see the unintended consequences of legal immigration.  They also set the stage for illegal entry into the country on a grand scale.