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Alphabet Soup: A Brief Immigration Primer

Following please find a very cursory overview of some immigration visa categories.  The USCIS (INS/BCIS) web site is a good place to start your education:

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of following immigration procedures.  It is always the responsibility of the person holding the visa to remain in status and of the company to make certain employment records are up to date.  Past processes permitted some procedural flexibility.  That is simply no longer the case today.  Being out of status for one day, missing one paperwork filing deadline, accidentally saying the wrong thing to an immigration official can have serious consequences.  At a minimum it can be a long and expensive process to correct the problem.  Increasingly it can mean a bar from entering the US or otherwise obtaining any immigration benefits for three to ten years, or permanently.  Use caution. 

These Categories Are Permanent: Green Card and Citizenship

One can obtain the green card, lawful permanent residence, through work or family.  Through work a process called PERM is used. 

After obtaining the green card and a three or five year wait, including residency requirements, citizenship can be applied for.  Citizenship is not automatic.  There are several important criteria that must be followed.  Learn these criteria as soon as you've received your green card to avoid surprises.

These Visas are Temporary: They never "ripen" into permanent status.

* B1/B2 -- Tourist or business.  Careful about changing from this status to another.

* F -- Student.  Best student visa.  Part time work allowed on campus.  Can switch to other visa categories.

* J -- Exchange visitor/student.  Bad one but may be the only thing you can obtain.  There is a requirement you return to your home country for two years prior to switching to any other category.  There are ways to waive this requirement, but they are difficult and costly.  Try to get the F if it is an option.

* H1-B1 -- Professional worker.  This is a terrific visa: you can pay a hefty premium and immigration must grant you the visa, if your application is spot on, within about two weeks.  It is good for up to six years, including extensions under certain circumstances.  It is for professionals using a college degree and/or experience in the position.  Be careful about the annual cap.  The cap has been reached very quickly each year.  This year only about half the applications received on the first filing day were accepted.  There are exceptions to the cap.  Let's discuss. 

* H2A/H2B -- Seasonal temporary work.  Great for farms and other seasonal employment.  Messy business to obtain, but can be used for groups of employees.

* O-1 -- Extraordinary ability.  Exceptionally rare and difficult, this visa allows a very talented professional to self petition for permanent residency.  Good grades and a cool job title aren't the ticket.

* L -- Intracompany transfer.  If you've worked for a company abroad for a minimum of a year and are being transferred to the US with the same company, this is your visa.

* G and A -- International organization employees and embassy officials.  Weird stuff, but I know about them, including respective immunities.

* NAFTA -- Canadian and Mexican special visas.  Big differences in the application between the two countries.

* E -- Investor visa.  Buy your way into the US with a business.