A side note: I've added a few bells and whistles to this page in the past few days, including random selections from my library and a link to my shared items on Google Reader. If you don't use an RSS feed, I would suggest that you give one a try - they're wonderful, especially if you read sites that are updated sequentially and/or frequently (blogs, daily news services, etc.). Additionally, I have switched over this site to permit feed access. Just one more way I try to keep you up-to-date on the issues that matter - i.e., the ones that interest me!
Also, these consular posts are a bit heavy on policy description, but I think it helps to think about these issues when talking about immigration, legal or otherwise, this election season. Loaded terms like "anchor babies" spewing from more than one pundit, the proliferation of non-WASPy names in technical fields, and a presidential candidate with an entire branch of his family watching his campaign from Kenya all tie into the issue of immigration and America, something I don't think we've ever come to terms with fully. I certainly have an altered position on immigration reform after my consular training, and I'm sure it will only change more once I have to deal so closely with Homeland Security at post.
Now. Immigrant visas. This is the golden prize for many people around the world - the right to immigrate to the US and start on the path to US citizenship. Unsurprisingly, there are a significant number of hurdles to clear before one can actually receive this visa, which only gives people the right to show up at the US and apply for legal permanent residency (the [no longer] green card). Laws guiding legal immigration to the US are mainly predicated on two basic goals, family reunification and importing skilled/needed labor. Family reunification is fairly straightforward: US citizens can petition to bring their family members who are citizens of another nation to the United States. The more closely related a foreign citizen is to an American citizen (e.g. spouse and children in the first tier, parents and siblings next), the faster and easier the process is.
This category is subject to annual numerical caps, both in terms of the absolute number of immigrants and in terms of immigration from a particular country. This arises because certain countries (Mexico and the Philippines are the two best examples) have so many eligible immigrants that in any given year the eligible immigrants from either country could consume all of the eligible visas in a month. Essentially, if you're a citizen of a foreign country seeking to immigrate to the United States, it's great to have AmCit relatives filing for you, but it really sucks if you're Filipino, Mexican, or Indian (and a few other countries), because you could face up to an eighteen-year wait merely to get the visa interview.
The other group, employment-based immigrant visas, is pretty self-explanatory. If you have a skill we need as determined by the Department of Labor, then you can apply for an immigrant visa. Almost all of these immigrants need to have a job offer in the States in order to qualify, and they must stay at this job until they naturalize (the exception is for people with an "extraordinary ability" - Enrico Fermi or Albert Einstein could have gotten this visa, for example). There are also special visa categories for certain categories of workers, such as locals who work for US embassies and consulates overseas, former employees of the US in the Panama Canal zone, and workers in bona fide religious outfits in the US.
A few of these special categories have gotten a lot of press in recent months, such as the special visas for Iraqis who work at Embassy Baghdad and at PRTs around Iraq. This article amped up the publicity level regarding these visas, and the article's now been turned into a play. Additionally, there exist immigrant visa opportunities for foreigners who invest significantly in the US economy, especially in targeted areas needing aid. New Orleans has sought for and attracted a number of these investors, going so far as to advertise this opportunity in Southeast Asia financial journals.
Additionally, there exists another class of immigrant visas that attempts to balance the trends in the two primary immigration categories. Diversity visas, unsurprisingly, are open only to people from countries that don't send a lot of immigrants to the US. They're issued by lottery to 50,000 applicants, who still have to go through the regular vetting process to get the visa. If they don't qualify, they're SOL.
This has ended up quite longer than I expected. I'll write more on the visa ineligibilities soon. Sorry to leave you hanging - but the ineligibilities get ridiculous. Hope you were never a Communist and now want to immigrate to the US...