Last year, 1.1 million people received "green cards" as legal permanent residents of the United States. This allows them to live and work permanently in the United States, to own property, to attend public schools, to join the military and to apply to become citizens.
Federal immigration law sets out several paths to legal residency. The most common route is to have a family relationship with someone who already is a legal U.S. resident or citizen. Other avenues involve having special job skills, being a refugee or asylum seeker or being from a country with low levels of immigration.
There are no quotas for some types of immigrants, such as spouses, parents of U.S. citizens over 21 and minor children of U.S. citizens and refugees. For other types of immigrants, such as other family members and people sponsored by employers, the total annual limit runs between 416,000 and 675,000.
Most legal immigrants fit into the categories below. Percentages shown represent the proportion of immigrants who obtained legal residence in each category last year.
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Immediate relatives of U.S. citizens:
Spouses, parents and minor children of U.S. citizens make up the biggest category of legal permanent residents. There is no limit on the number of people who may become residents in this category.
Other family members:
The law allows up to 226,000 people to become legal residents because of other family connections this year. For example, this category covers the married children and siblings of U.S. citizens.
People sponsored by employers:
Workers -- and their spouses and children -- can become legal residents through employment preferences, chiefly because they have specially needed skills or advanced degrees. The law limits the number of such workers to 140,000 this year, plus any unfilled slots in the category for family members.
The law allows up to 50,000 immigrants per year from countries with especially low rates of legal immigration.
Refugees and asylees:
There is no limit on people who are already here and request asylum out of fear of persecution. There is a limit of 70,000 new refugees this year, though it's doubtful that immigration offices will be able to process that many requests.
(OFFICE OF IMMIGRATION STATISTICS, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY)