Five Grounds              

"A creative novel about a complex, topical subject." -Kirkus Indie Review   

Immigration Basics

The status of individuals in the United States can fall under several categories: citizens, immigrants, nonimmigrants, and undocumented.

An “immigrant” is someone who plans to remain in the United States permanently. The term “immigrant” is often used interchangeably with “green card holder” or “permanent resident.” People who fall under this category can be eligible to become citizens of the United States.

A “nonimmigrant” is someone who is authorized to remain in the United States for a limited time and usually for a limited purpose. For example, someone might get a nonimmigrant visa to study in the United States at a university for a year.

Individuals who are “unauthorized” (also referred to as “undocumented” or “illegal”) are present in the United States even though the government has not authorized them to do so. A person is unauthorized if he or she enters the country illegally. However, a person can also be present in the United States illegally if he or she comes to the United States legally but stays longer than authorized. So, for example, a foreign student who comes to the United States on a student visa for a year will become unauthorized if the student stays in the United States after the visa expires.

Can people ever enter the United States if they don’t have a visa? Yes. Under the Visa Waiver Program nonimmigrants from certain countries do not need a visa to visit the United States if they do not plan on staying more than 90 days. There are also border crossing cards that are available in certain instances. But when these waivers are not an option there are a multitude of different nonimmigrant visas that foreign nationals can apply for. Here are some of the main ones:

Select Nonimmigrant Visas
Workers in specialty occupations
Seasonal agricultural workers
Seasonal nonagricultural workers
Spouses and children of H1, H2, or H3
Workers with extraordinary ability or achievement
Workers accompanying and assisting in performance of O1 workers
Spouses and children of O1 and O2
Internationally recognized athletes or entertainers  
Artists or entertainers in reciprocal exchange programs  
Artists or entertainers in culturally unique programs  

Spouses and children of P1, P2, or P3 


Workers in international cultural exchange programs 

Workers in religious occupations  
Spouses and children of R1  
North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) professional workers  
Spouses and children of TN  
Academic students
Spouses and children of F1  
Vocational students  
Spouses and children of M1  
Exchange visitors  
Spouses and children of J1  

If you’re wondering how many nonimmigrant visas the United States issues, the answer is a lot: millions each year. Countries with high nonimmigrant visa numbers include India, China, Korea, Canada, and Mexico. Nonimmigrant visa holders are not evenly disbursed throughout the country. Most nonimmigrant visa holders travel to a handful of states. California and New York are the two biggest destinations, followed by Texas, Florida, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.

So what about immigrant status? How do individuals obtain a green card and the potential to remain in the United States permanently? If you have an immediate relative who is a citizen, that relative can sponsor you. Also, employers are sometimes able to sponsor foreign employees. In addition to sponsorship by a family member or employer, individuals can sometimes be eligible for a green card if they invest a large amount of money in the U.S. economy in a manner that will create jobs. There is also a “diversity visa,” which is essentially a green card lottery system.

Another large category relates to the subject matter of Five Grounds: individuals granted refugee or asylum status. If the United States provides an individual with refugee or asylum status, then that person can be eligible for a green card after one year. The main difference between a refugee and an asylee is where people are located when applying. If they are outside the United States, then they’re applying for refugee status. If they’re inside the United States, then they’re applying for asylum relief. Either way, applicants have to prove that:

  • they will be persecuted in their home country;
  • they will be persecuted on account of one of the five protected grounds; and
  • the government in their home country would be responsible for persecuting them or cannot adequately prevent others from persecuting them.

What does it mean to be persecuted? At bottom, it means that you are going to be severely harmed. It's hard to pinpoint the exact point where harm is severe enough to qualify as persecutory. If you'd like to learn more, here's an article that addresses this issue.

As readers of Five Grounds learn, analyzing whether persecution is on account of a protected ground can be challenging. The five protected grounds are race, religion, nationality, social group, and political opinion. Race, religion, and nationality are the three most straightforward grounds. 

Political opinion raises the question of when exactly an opinion is "political." For example, is a protest by a labor organization an expression of a political opinion? The answer may depend on the types of beliefs associated with political expression in a given country.  

Social group is the most dynamic protected ground, continuously evolving to adapt to societal norms. To qualify as a social group, members typically must share an immutable characteristic (such as family membership) or a characteristic that is fundamental to their identity. 

Why does the government need to be responsible for the harm or fail to stop it? Quite simply, the reason is that governments don't want to provide people with refugee or asylum status if they could have gone to their own governments to seek redress. 

In recent years, the United States has admitted between 55,000 and 80,000 refugees each year. There is a ceiling on the number of refugees that the government can admit each year. Since 2009, that threshold has been 80,000. That doesn’t mean that the United States has to let in 80,000, just that it cannot let in any more than that. Here are the countries with the highest number of admitted refugees in 2011, according to the Department of State:

Country of Origin
 Number of Admitted Refugees

The states that receive the most refugees are Texas, California, New York, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Georgia.

The number of people obtaining asylum status has decreased in recent years. In 2011, the total number was just under 25,000. The greatest number of asylees came from China, Venezuela, and Ethiopia.

Immigration Resources