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Is There Really an Immigration “Line” to Wait In?

How do we decide who can immigrate to the U.S?

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Democratic and Republican leaders actually seem to agree on one thing: that foreigners trying to get permanent residency — AKA “green cards” — should go to the back of the line and wait their turn like everyone else. It makes the whole green card process seem really simple, as though there’s just one line that everyone’s waiting in. Not surprisingly, though, the system is a whole lot more complicated than that. There are actually tons of different kinds of lines and dramatically different wait times depending on who you are and where you’re from. So what does that “line” actually look like and how did it all get so darn complicated?

ABOVE THE NOISE is a show that cuts through the hype and investigates the research behind controversial and trending topics in the news. Hosted by Shirin Ghaffary.


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What is a visa?

It’s the form that most foreigners need to have in order to travel to and stay in the United States. The two main categories are non-immigrant visas (for temporary stays) and immigrant visas (people trying to live here permanently). The immigrant visas are also known as green cards.

Is there really just one line to get a green card?

Not even close. It totally depends on where you’re from, what family connections you have, your education level and skill set and even how much money you have.

Do Dems and Reps both agree that the system needs to be changed?

Yes, but leaders of the two parties have very different ideas of how to do that. Republicans generally favor stricter immigration enforcement and tighter borders, while Democrats generally want to create more paths to citizenship, especially for immigrants already living in the country illegally.

Migration Policy Institute: Frequently Requested Statistics

MPI: Going to the Back of the Line: A Primer on Lines, Visa Categories, and Wait Times

Business Insider: ‘Wait your turn’: The incredibly complicated process behind legal immigration to the US

Urban Institute: A Comparison of Family and Employment Immigrants

US Citizenship and Immigration Services; Dept. of Homeland Security

Democratic Party Platform 2016, Immigration

Republican Party Platform 2016

The Atlantic: The Immigration Act that Inadvertently Changed America

Pew Research: More than Half of New Green Cards Go to People Already Living in the U.S.

More than half of new green cards go to people already living in the U.S.

With special thanks to Julia Gelatt, Senior Policy Analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, for reviewing the script.

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About KQED
KQED, an NPR and PBS affiliate in San Francisco, CA, serves Northern California and beyond with a public-supported alternative to commercial TV, Radio, and web media. Funding for Above the Noise is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Silver Giving Foundation, Stuart Foundation, and William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.