How to Get a Green Card if You Are Undocumented | 5 Paths to Lawful Permanent Residence

how to get a green card if you are illegal

Being an undocumented immigrant in the United States is an incredibly difficult reality. You live in the shadows, often afraid that any routine interaction could lead to your removal from the country. The U.S. immigration system lacks straightforward paths for obtaining legal status, making the road ahead feel hopeless.

However, there are options worth exploring if you find yourself in this situation. While the road is complex and narrow, understanding the potential pathways is crucial. At the Law Office of Lina Baroudi, we have extensive experience guiding undocumented foreign nationals through the intricate web of immigration laws. Let’s examine some key possibilities.

1. Marriage to a U.S. Citizen or Green Card Holder

One of the most common avenues for an undocumented noncitizen is to seek a marriage-based green card through their relationship to a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident (green card holder). If you are the spouse of a U.S. citizen, you are considered an “immediate relative” and generally eligible to apply for a green card.

The process is most straightforward if you originally entered the United States legally, even though you may have overstayed a visa and fallen out of status. In this scenario, you can typically apply for adjustment of status without leaving the country.

However, if your entry was without permission – meaning you crossed the border without inspection – the process becomes more complicated.

Applying for a green card through a spouse who is a green card holder (Lawful Permanent Resident) is more complicated and requires a consultation with an experienced immigration attorney.

Requirements for the Provisional Waiver

If you entered the U.S. without permission, you will likely be required to depart the U.S., triggering automatic bars to re-entry for 3 or 10 years based on your accumulated unlawful presence. Fortunately, the provisional waiver process introduced in 2013 provides a solution.

By filing Form I-601A and demonstrating that your U.S. citizen or LPR spouse would suffer “extreme hardship” due to your absence, you may be able to obtain a waiver of those re-entry bars before leaving for your green card interview. This streamlined the previously risky process of seeking a waiver from outside the country.

Of course, strict requirements must be met, including proof of a bona fide marriage and good moral character. An experienced immigration lawyer must ensure you qualify and compile a strong waiver application.

2. Overcoming Unlawful Presence through INA 245(i) for DREAMers

For undocumented youth who grew up in the United States, often referred to as DREAMers, the DACA program provided temporary relief from deportation. However, it does not offer a permanent solution or path to citizenship. This is where Section 245(i) of the Legal Immigration Family Equity (LIFE) Act comes into play.

While the April 2001 deadline for filing petitions under 245(i) may seem long past, there are creative ways certain DREAMers can “inherit” 245(i) protection based on petitions filed by parents or other qualifying family members years ago.

For example, if your U.S. citizen aunt filed an I-130 petition for your mother before April 30, 2001, you and your siblings covered as “children” on that petition may qualify for 245(i) benefits, even if no one followed up on that filing.

As you can see, these cases require extensive documentation and legal analysis to overcome the many technical hurdles. Ensure you consult a knowledgeable immigration attorney to fully understand your options and risks.

3. Asylum Status for Those Facing Persecution

For those fleeing persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political views, or membership in a particular social group, asylum offers a life-saving path to legal status. U.S. immigration law allows noncitizens present in the United States to apply for asylum within one year of arrival.

To be approved for asylum, you must demonstrate a credible fear of returning to your home country due to past persecution or a well-founded fear of future harm. Whether it’s official documentation, witness statements, or an expert’s evaluation of country conditions, corroborating evidence is essential.

While the process seems straightforward, the legal bar for asylum is quite high. As a denial can have dire consequences, it is advisable to have representation from lawyers who are well-versed in these cases. We often refer asylum seekers to trusted non-profit organizations that assist with these matters.

If asylum is ultimately granted, you can be granted lawful permanent resident status (a green card) one year after your approval.

4. Green Card through Registry for Long-Term U.S. Residents

You may have heard of the “registry” option, which allows certain undocumented individuals to apply for a green card directly if they’ve resided in the United States before a specific date. It’s true—a housekeeping provision in the INA does offer this possibility.

However, the current registry date of January 1, 1972, is extremely outdated. Very few undocumented foreign persons remaining in the country can demonstrate continuous presence dating back over 50 years. Immigration advocates have long pushed Congress to advance the date to make this path more accessible.

While legislative improvements appear stalled, the registry law remains an often-discussed option in negotiations over comprehensive immigration reform. Those who may qualify based on the existing entry date should consult an attorney immediately, as the criteria and documentation needed are stringent.

5. Non-LPR Cancellation of Removal as a Last Resort

What if you’ve been placed in removal (deportation) proceedings due to your undocumented status? Non-LPR Cancellation of Removal offers one last recourse for those who have lived in the United States for over ten years and have families here.

To be eligible, you’ll need to demonstrate:

  • Continuous physical presence in the U.S. for at least ten years
  • Good moral character during that period
  • Removal would result in “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship” to a U.S. citizen or LPR spouse, parent, or child.

While this relief is considered a last resort, it can provide a crucial opportunity to avoid separation from your loved ones and continue your life in the United States. Consulting with an experienced immigration attorney can help you understand your eligibility and build the strongest possible case.

Explore Your Immigration Options – Consult with Our Team

Between demonstrating longstanding ties, proving hardship, avoiding bars, and more. However, the pathways discussed represent potential opportunities worthy of careful review with experienced legal counsel.

At the Law Office of Lina Baroudi, our team has spent decades untangling these intricate areas of immigration law. We understand the stakes could not be higher, which is why we dedicate ourselves to exploring every possible option and creating personalized strategies for your unique situation.

If you or a loved one is undocumented and seeking a path to lawful permanent residence and citizenship, we urge you to take the first step. Complete our brief online form to request a private consultation with our attorneys today.

Author Bio

Lina Baroudi is the owner and managing attorney at the Law Office of Lina Baroudi. Lina is a dedicated immigration attorney with over ten years of experience in the field. As an immigrant herself, having moved to the United States from Syria at a young age, Ms. Baroudi understands the challenges and complexities that immigrants face. Her personal connection to immigrant rights fuels her passion and commitment to achieving success for her clients.

Throughout her career, Lina has been recognized for her excellence in immigration law. She was listed in the California 2015-2020 Rising Stars List by Super Lawyers, an honor given to only 2.5 percent of attorneys in the state. Lina’s proficiency in the field is further evidenced by her role as a Law Clerk at the California Court of Appeal for the Sixth Appellate District, where she gained invaluable experience and knowledge. She also received the prestigious Witkin Award for Academic Excellence in Immigration Law during her time at Golden Gate University School of Law.

LinkedIn | State Bar Association | Avvo | Google