Here Is the Process for Immigrating to the United States

Nobody said it would be quick—or easy

About one in four Californians is foreign born. And while the state has 2,450,000 or so undocumented immigrants, it has far more immigrants who are here with the blessing of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. That’s saying something, because the process of becoming a legal, naturalized citizen can be arduous. Hopefully this simplified guide is not.

All of the articles and photos from our special Immigration Issue are available in the October 2016 issue, on newsstands now.

The Legal Route

You’ll need one in order to stay in the U.S. legally longer than 90 days. There are more than 200 kinds which are divided into immigrant visas (spouse of a U.S. citizen, work) or nonimmigrant visas (tourism, student). All require being interviewed, fingerprinted, and photographed.

Green Card
Commonly obtained through family, a job, or refugee or asylee status, it identifies you as a permanent resident, one who can travel in and out of the country. There’s also something called the “Diversity lottery,” which grants 55,000 green cards to people from countries with low rates of immigration to the US. Break the rules (criminal activity, immigration fraud) within two years, and a green card can be revoked.

To qualify, you must meet several requirements: Are you 18 or older? Of “good moral character”? Have you had a green card for at least five years? (It could be as short as three if your spouse is a U.S. citizen or you obtained a green card through the Violence Against Women Act.) You’re getting close.

Take The Naturalization Test
How many amendments does the constitution have? Who was president during World War I? We elect a U.S. representative for how many years? If you can answer these, you might be able to pass the ten-question civics portion of the test. English proficiency, an interview, and a fee are also required.

And Now The Oath of Allegiance
After vowing to “absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty,” you receive a certificate of naturalization. BOOM. You’re now a U.S. citizen.

RELATED: What It’s Like to “Come Out” as an Undocumented Immigrant

Each year about 30,000 people in L.A. County become naturalized U.S. citizens. The process could take six months; it could take years. Why? One reason is the annual cap on immigrants to the U.S. is 675,000 (extra visas are granted for close family members). Another? No more than 7 percent of the total can be from a single country.

The Illegal Route

Cross The Border Illegally
Approximately 165,000 people made the trek from Mexico to the U.S. in 2014, according to the Survey of Migration on the Northern Border of Mexico. That’s about half as many individuals as crossed the year before.

Overstay Visa
Approximately 40 percent of undocumented individuals in the U.S. are here because they overstayed their visas. In 2015, about half a million people—1.07 percent of visa recipients—remained in the U.S. after their paperwork expired.

Commit Marriage Fraud
For one spouse to get a green card, a couple must prove their marriage is legitimate. If fraud is suspected, they may need to sit down with an immigration officer for individual interviews to check that their stories match.

This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of Los Angeles magazine.