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Federal Immigration Policy

The first migrants from across the Atlantic who came to what would become the United States of America were Western Europeans looking for economic prosperity and religious freedom, and Africans brought over in slavery. Over time, new groups came, and we developed laws restricting who could and couldn't immigrate by limiting or prohibiting migration based on race, ethnicity, physical and mental ability, religion, or political affiliation.

Until recently, the difficulty of travel and communication meant that people either immigrated with their family or were cut off from them almost entirely. Our immigration system today is built on this historical legacy and focuses on family unity.

How Immigration Works

There are three main types of visas (family, employment, and diversity), each with specific annual quotas. A single country cannot get more than 7 percent of allotted visas. There are about 675,000 visas available each year. Here is a brief overview of how visas are allocated:

  • The family visa pile starts out with 480,000. Immediate relatives of U.S. citizens (spouses and minor children) don’t have to wait in line—they get their visas first, and the rest go to other types of family members based on their relationship and when they started the visa application process. No matter how many immediate relative visas are given out, at least 226,000 visas are given out to other types of family.
  • 140,000 employment visas are allotted each year. 40,000 go to “priority” workers—researchers, executives, and people with extraordinary ability. The other 100,000 go to people whose employers have received a labor certification approval. The process can take up to ten years.
  • 55,000 visas are set aside for the diversity lottery, comprised of people from under-represented countries.
  • The number of visas for refugees is set annually. For 2015, 70,000 such visas are available.
  • Certain special groups—like people with extraordinary abilities and international acclaim, or people willing to invest at least $1 million into the US economy—are in a separate pool.


Faith groups have been calling for comprehensive change to our approach to immigration for years. These are some of their chief concerns with our current system:

  • The current system can take years and is too complicated to be responsive to current economic needs.
  • The family-based, permanent resident model is outdated. Modern migrants can travel between countries with relative ease, looking for temporary work with or without their families.
  • Because of the per-country cap, there are huge disparities in the wait times for people from smaller countries than from countries like India and Mexico. For example, the unmarried adult daughter in Bangladesh of a U.S. resident would be getting her visa in 2015 if she applied in 2007. If she were from Mexico, however, she would have been waiting since 1994.


There are a number of proposals for ways that our immigration system could work. They fall into five main categories:

  • Family-based: the same system we have now or a variation of it
  • Employment-based: admit people quickly, based on the types of labor needed in the U.S.
  • Point system: grant visas based on the number of desirable qualities of each applicant
  • Closed borders: admit no one
  • Open borders: admit everyone, including those already here without authorization


The bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges, if by decency and propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment.” 

George Washington


Above photo used courtesy Michela Simoncini via Flickr Creative Commons

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