For many undocumented immigrants living in the United States, there is no straightforward path to legal status. The current immigration system is highly regulated and subject to numerical limitations and eligibility requirements, which means that most undocumented immigrants do not have the necessary family or employment relationships to access legal channels. In this article, we will explore the limited options available for undocumented immigrants to become legal residents and the challenges they face in navigating the complex immigration system.
Limited Options for Legal Status
Family-based immigration is limited to certain close family relationships and is numerically restricted. U.S. citizens can petition for their spouses, parents (if the petitioner is 21 or older), children, and siblings. Lawful Permanent Residents (LPRs, or “green card” holders) can petition for their spouses and unmarried children (of any age). However, a family-based visa is unavailable to any undocumented immigrant who doesn’t have a qualified relative or who fails to meet those eligibility requirements.
Employment-based immigration requires a U.S. employer to request specific foreign workers. Very few undocumented immigrants are eligible for employment-based visas, and competition for these visas is fierce. This means that for all but a lucky few, these visas are unavailable to undocumented immigrants regardless of skill or desire to work legally.
Most people fleeing their home countries cannot access humanitarian protection, such as refugee or asylum status. Even when undocumented immigrants do have qualifying relatives or employers who could provide a pathway to a visa, many are still not able to take advantage of that process for years due to the demand for visas being higher than the number of slots available each year.
Barriers to Obtaining Legal Status
Undocumented immigrants who entered the United States without being legally admitted and inspected are generally not eligible to obtain green cards while still inside the country. Even if there is a visa available, they are barred from “adjusting status” and getting a green card without first leaving the country because of how they entered the United States. This means that even when a visa is available, undocumented immigrants must risk spending up to 10 years away from their families in the United States before being allowed to reenter the country.
The Need for Immigration Reform
Given the limited options and barriers to obtaining legal status, it is clear that the current immigration system does not provide a viable pathway for the majority of undocumented immigrants living in the United States. Many of these individuals have lived in the country for over a decade, contributing to their communities and the economy, yet they have no way of achieving legal status.
Immigration reform is necessary to create a new pathway to legal status for undocumented immigrants, allowing them to fully participate in society and contribute to the nation’s economic growth. Providing legal status to unauthorized immigrants would increase their effective labor supply, improve labor market outcomes, and boost economic growth.
In conclusion, there is no simple answer to the question of how an illegal immigrant can become legal. The current immigration system does not provide a clear pathway for the majority of undocumented immigrants, and the limited options available are often inaccessible due to various barriers and restrictions. Comprehensive immigration reform is needed to address these challenges and create a more inclusive and equitable system that allows undocumented immigrants to achieve legal status and fully contribute to the United States.
Q: How can an undocumented immigrant become legal?
A: There are several paths for an undocumented immigrant to become legal in the United States. Some common options include obtaining a green card, adjusting their status, or applying for temporary protected status.
Q: What is a green card and how can an undocumented immigrant apply for it?
A: A green card, also known as permanent resident status, allows an individual to live and work permanently in the United States. To apply for a green card, undocumented immigrants may need to have a qualifying family relationship or qualify under certain employment categories.
Q: Can an undocumented immigrant apply for a visa?
A: Undocumented immigrants generally cannot apply for visas, as visas are generally intended for individuals who are entering the United States legally. However, there may be certain exceptions or special circumstances where an undocumented immigrant may be eligible for an immigrant visa.
Q: What is adjustment of status and how does it apply to an undocumented immigrant?
A: Adjustment of status is a process that allows certain individuals who are already in the United States to apply for permanent resident status without having to leave the country. Undocumented immigrants may be eligible to adjust their status if they have an immediate relative who can sponsor them.
Q: What is cancellation of removal in immigration court?
A: Cancellation of removal is a form of relief available to certain undocumented individuals who are facing removal in immigration court. It allows them to apply for legal status if they can demonstrate that their removal would result in exceptional and extremely unusual hardship to a qualifying U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident.
Q: What is asylum and can it help an undocumented immigrant become legal?
A: Asylum is a form of protection that is available to individuals who have fled their home country due to past persecution or a well-founded fear of future persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. If granted asylum, an undocumented immigrant may be eligible to apply for permanent residence after one year.
Q: Can an undocumented immigrant become a citizen of the United States?
A: Yes, undocumented immigrants have a pathway to citizenship in the United States. However, the process can be complex and may require meeting certain eligibility criteria, such as obtaining legal permanent residency and maintaining a continuous physical presence in the country.
Q: Can an undocumented immigrant obtain legal status in the United States if they entered the country illegally?
A: While entering the United States illegally can present challenges, there may still be options for an undocumented immigrant to obtain legal status. It is important to consult with an immigration attorney to explore potential pathways based on individual circumstances.
Q: What is the role of an immigration attorney in helping an undocumented immigrant become legal?
A: An immigration attorney can provide guidance, advice, and representation to undocumented immigrants seeking to become legal in the United States. They can assess individual eligibility, assist with the application process, and represent clients in immigration court proceedings if necessary.
Q: What are some common terms related to the process of becoming legal for undocumented immigrants?
A: Some common terms related to the process of becoming legal for undocumented immigrants include deportation, applying for a green card, adjustment of status, permanent resident status, temporary protected status, immigration court, immigration status, and legal immigration status.
 Center for American Progress. (2021). Citizenship for Undocumented Immigrants Would Boost U.S. Economic Growth. Retrieved from https://www.americanprogress.org/article/citizenship-undocumented-immigrants-boost-u-s-economic-growth/
 Pew Research Center. (2019). 5 facts about illegal immigration in the U.S. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2019/06/12/5-facts-about-illegal-immigration-in-the-u-s/
 The White House. (2021). The Economic Benefits of Extending Permanent Legal Status to Unauthorized Immigrants. Retrieved from https://www.whitehouse.gov/cea/written-materials/2021/09/17/the-economic-benefits-of-extending-permanent-legal-status-to-unauthorized-immigrants/
 Congressman Doug Lamborn. (2023). Illegal Immigration. Retrieved from http://lamborn.house.gov/issues/illegal-immigration
 American Immigration Council. (2021). Why Don’t They Just Get In Line? There Is No Line for Many Unauthorized Immigrants. Retrieved from https://www.americanimmigrationcouncil.org/research/why-don%E2%80%99t-they-just-get-line
 National Immigration Law Center. (2023). Overview of Immigrant Eligibility for Federal Programs. Retrieved from https://www.nilc.org/issues/economic-support/overview-immeligfedprograms/