How Can an Illegal Immigrant Become Legal

How Can an Illegal Immigrant Become Legal

What Is Illegal Immigration All About and How Many People Come to America Illegally?

When it comes to immigration-related issues, you will often hear the terms “undocumented immigrants”, “undocumented migrants” or “unauthorized immigrants” on various platforms. All these terms are referred to those people who are not legally authorized to be or reside in the United States. These individuals are born in foreign countries but are currently in the United States without a proper visa or other immigration-related documentation. The reason is they would have either entered the country without a proper inspection often termed as EWI (Entered Without Inspection), or their temporary visa (like F1 or the tourist visa) might have expired, but they chose to stay in the US violating the laws of the country. Now before we find out how can an Illegal Immigrant become Legal, we need to understand all the terms stated here.

What Is the Difference Between an Undocumented Immigrant and an Illegal Alien? 

Both undocumented immigrants and illegal aliens have the same meaning. The term ‘illegal Alien’ is just a way of addressing these groups of individuals by some in the political field or by a few media representatives. It is not something that illegal immigration lawyers prefer to address an individual as. Because these people do not have proper immigration documents, they do not have the legal rights to be in the United States and technically they should leave the country immediately. 

Many people chose to live like this thinking that this is probably the easiest way through, they do not need to go through the hassles of visa processing, or, ignorance about the issues that may arise in the future. Of course, some even think that this is probably the road to a better life. However, living in the country without respecting the immigration laws can have serious consequences, including deportation, penalties, and other legal actions that may lead to a financial crisis, separation from their families, and many other issues.  

Now, immigration in the United States is a vast and heated topic at present. While different groups of people or institutions have different views on this, the questions remain that “how can an illegal immigrant become legal?”, “Is it possible with the help of an illegal immigration lawyer?”, “What if an illegal immigrant married to a US citizen – does he or she get to stay legally?”. You will learn all these and more through the course of this article, but before that let’s take an insight into some background information first. 

Immigration and how to get in - How Can an Illegal Immigrant Become Legal

Who Are the Undocumented Immigrants and Where Have They Come From? 

Most of the undocumented or unauthorized immigrants belong to different groups. Some of them are young immigrants (commonly known as the Dreamers) who were brought to the United States by their parents or relatives illegally without the right kind of documentation. Some are individuals who have been living in the country for several years now without proper immigration papers or a valid visa. Other categories of people include essential workers and farmworkers, individuals who have temporary protection from being deported from the country, or the ones who are with family members who are citizens of America. 

How Many People Come to America Illegally, and What Is the Current Number That Comprises Unauthorized Immigrants? 

According to several pieces of research and reports, around 77% of the population in the country are legal residents while approximately 23% comprise people who are living unlawfully, which is around 10.3 to 12+ million residents. You might be wondering why hasn’t the United States or the authorities in charge of the immigration process done anything about these people yet. 

Why Haven’t the Unlawful Residents Been Deported From the Country?  

Well, one of the major reasons behind this is the incapability of the immigration department’s system or, rather, lack of proper resources to keep a track of the numbers. Another reason is deporting these individuals costs them huge money. The detention process of one person can cost them thousands of dollars so taking action against so many people living unlawfully is sure to take a toll on the country’s economy. The Customs Enforcement department estimates a cost almost close to $13,000 to send a single unauthorized immigrant to their home country.  

Also, there is uncertainty in some cases where the immigrants are undocumented but also have an almost valid reason or the right to stay back in the country, even if it is temporary. For example, certain refugees or asylum seekers cannot be sent back because they may have a valid claim for some form of US immigration relief, like the Temporary Protected Status. 

In case if some people enter the country unnoticed, they have a year to file for asylum status. They cannot technically be allowed to be in the country and if caught and put for removal proceedings, they can claim for asylum immediately and might be approved for the same as well. Such individuals become eligible for adjustment of status after one year. 

Student Immigrants

There are also student immigrants or the ones who have their family members in the US who might be permanent residents or with valid visa status. Such individuals are often ignored under the “Prosecutorial Discretion” law and the authorities instead focus on the individuals committing a crime and who pose danger to society and the country. Some of these individuals who the authorities choose to give lower priority in the illegal immigration situation may be DACA recipients or be given an employee work authorization. This way they are relieved from the removal proceedings as long as they abide by the policies. 

Before we move on to see “how can an illegal immigrant become legal?” it is also important to note that, a considerable amount of vital occupations across the country are occupied by undocumented residents. These occupations include agriculture, building construction, building and ground maintenance, manufacturing and production, food services, and preparation. 

How Can an Illegal Immigrant Become Legal? What Happens to an Illegal Immigrant Married to US Citizens? 

Whether you crossed the borders of the country legally but stayed over even after the visa expired or got into the country uninspected by border officials, you are considered as an unauthorized or undocumented immigrant. This means that it can get really difficult for you, as you are always at the risk of being seized by the authorities and put through the removal procedure. If you do not want to get into that situation and want to know ‘how can an illegal immigrant become legal’, here are a few things that you can do. 

Consult an Illegal Immigration Lawyer:

The best way you can get to what is right for you and what are the things that can help you get through this situation properly is to discuss with an illegal immigration lawyer. An illegal immigration lawyer can not only advise you on what can be done but also help you file for obtaining a long-term legal status properly. This can lead to an adjustment of status approval and gradually open a path to US citizenship.

Illegal Immigrant Married to US Citizen:

One of the easiest solutions to the question “how can an illegal immigrant become legal” in the United States is to get married to a Citizen of the United States. You may not even need an illegal immigration lawyer’s help in this situation. This applies to both types of undocumented immigrants- those who lawfully entered the country but stayed beyond their visa expiration date and those who sneaked inside without anyone noticing or inspecting. 

By marrying a citizen he or she becomes their immediate relative. Thus, the process of obtaining a permanent resident status becomes much easier than the others if they have “lawfully entered the country”. This means that if you are an immediate relative of the citizen who entered the country with a valid visa, but you overstayed beyond its expiration date (irrespective of whether it is a few months or a few years), you become eligible to apply for a green card. 

The Immediate Relative

You should know that the ‘immediate relative’ of a citizen is spouse, children under the age of 21, and parents only. For the immediate relative to file for adjustment of status to permanent residence, he or she should have entered the United States with proper documentation and gone through the immigration process properly, should have encountered an immigration officer in-person and got their entry accepted by the officer. 

On the other hand, if you have crossed the borders of the United States illegally without making your presence at the inspection or the checkpoints, then your chances of being qualified for a green card through marriage are minimal. This is how an immigrant who entered unlawfully in the country is penalized. You need to leave the country and complete your immigration process in your home country through the “consular proceeding”. 

Also during this time, the US Consulate can punish you for breaking the US law and bar you from returning to the States for a certain period. You may either be restricted from entering the US for 3 years if you have spent 6 months in the country illegally or, for 10 years if you have remained in the US for over a year. 

Population Data for Undocumented Immigrants - How Can an Illegal Immigrant Become Legal

Provisional Waiver Program:

The good news is, there is a ‘waiver program’ available now for some of those who have spent more than 6 months in the United States. This brings great relief to illegal immigrants married to US citizens. You may want to talk to an illegal immigration lawyer to see if you qualify to request the waiver and how can you avail of it. You need to file I-601A (Application for Provisional Unlawful Presence Waiver) to request a waiver in this situation. Remember that this program is available for the undocumented children and the spouse of US Citizens. 

The process may seem pretty easy, it isn’t that easy to get. You need to have someone professional to help you with the technicalities involved in it. The answers that you give to the questions may have a serious impact on your case which is why it is important to seek legal assistance. 

While the main aim of the waiver is to keep up the ‘family unity’, you need to prove to the USCIS that being rejected re-entry into the country will cause extensive hardships to your US Citizen family members like financial, medical, and mental health, educational hardships, etc. 

You also should remember that your marriage with a US citizen should be a valid one otherwise it may lead to high-grade penalties including a conviction for committing a felony. 

Getting Married to a Permanent Resident Rather Than a US Citizen: 

You also can get your passport if you are married to a permanent resident instead of a US Citizen. The only thing is you cannot go by the “Adjustment of Status” procedure because it only applies to the ‘immediate relative of the US citizen’. You need to, therefore, go by the ‘consular processing’ that involves all the risks as mentioned above. 

Through LIFE Act Protection: 

Dreamers or DACA recipients get additional protection from the government through the LIFE (Legal Immigration Family Equity) Act. Unauthorized DREAMers/ immigrants who are well qualified/ educated may be eligible for high-skilled jobs or may have been recognized by US employers as prospective candidates to fill a position in their company. In such situations, employers might be willing to sponsor their green cards. However, before filing for the candidate’s visa petition, the employer will have to undergo the Labor Certification process, also called PERM. 

One thing you should note is that despite the employer completing the PERM, the immigrant needs to go back to their home country because they had initially entered the United States by violating the laws of the country. However, if you are covered under the 245(i) provision of the LIFE act, then you can apply for and complete the Green Card process by staying back in the United States. This means that certain applicants whose immigration petition or I-130 was filed on or before April 30th, 2001, then they are eligible to stay back in the country and complete the green card process. To know more about the 245(i) provision click here

By Obtaining Asylum Status: 

Many immigrants move to the United States because they have been persecuted in their own home country or they fear persecution based on religion, caste, political belief, race, nationality, or belonging to any social group. If you are qualified to apply for asylum in the US, you can do so by applying within one year of the expiration of your original visa or your entry into the country.  You can seek the help of an illegal immigration lawyer to go through the process of the asylum application smoothly and be prepared for an interview with the USCIS. This is usually done to see how strong and valid your case is.

You can apply for asylum status by filing Form I-589 (Application for Asylum and Withholding of Removal). 

Once you get asylum status, you can then apply for permanent residence after one year of asylum approval. The children and spouses of the Asylees are also eligible to apply for a green card if they are approved as Asylees. 

Obtaining Legal Status by Requesting Cancelation of the Removal Proceedings: 

If placed in the removal proceedings, some of the undocumented immigrants can defend themselves by requesting to remove the proceedings in the immigration court. This is called non-LPR cancellation of the removal. However, you will have to fulfill the below requirements: 

  • You have been physically present in the country for 10 or more years. 
  • You need to prove that you are an individual with good moral character.
  • Removing or deporting you can lead to extreme hardships for your immediate family member/s who is a US citizen, or a green cardholder. 
  • You have not been arrested for certain crimes and have not violated certain laws of the United States. 

Green Card or Us Citizenship by Serving in the US Military: 

If you served in the military, were active-duty personnel with the US Armed Forces during one of the below-mentioned wars or conflicts, then you can apply for US Citizenship directly as per the law. This means that you do not have to go through the long process of applying for a green card initially. Here’s the list of the conflicts or wars that make you eligible for Citizenship: 

  • The World War I
  • The World War II
  • The Persian Gulf War
  • The Vietnam Hostilities
  • Iraq Hostilities or War on Terrorism
  • The Korean Hostilities

Also, you must get enlisted while you are on the US Territory like the American Samoa, Canal Zone, non-commercial U.S. ship, or Swains Island. 

Through U Visa for the Victims of Crime: 

Some of the undocumented immigrants may be victims of various crimes and they can help in imposing law enforcement. Such individuals are given the U Visa and if they can prove properly that they are qualified for this visa, they can get legal status and even apply for a green card in the future in some cases. Again taking the help of an illegal immigration lawyer can make the process better. 

A few things that qualify you for U-visa are: 

  • If you have been a victim of physical and mental abuse or a qualifying crime or an illegal activity. 
  • You have or can get critical information about a certain criminal activity and this activity violates the laws of the country.
  • If you have helped or can be helpful in a criminal investigation that can help solve a case. 

Legal Status Through Temporary Protected Visa: 

TPS or the temporary protected visa is given to those undocumented individuals who have come from a country that suffered an environmental or natural disaster, civil war, or other situations that make it unsafe for them to return to their home country. While TPS is not a permanent residence nor does it lead to one, the immigration laws of the United States allow the individual under this status to be in the country for a certain duration of time which has a maximum limit of 18 months. You will also be granted a work authorization during the time you are here. See the eligibility requirements and the various countries that are allotted for the TPS status here.  

Now that you know ‘how can an illegal immigrant become legal’, let’s move on to see what are some of the penalties of entering the United States illegally. 

Some of the Penalties of Entering the United States Illegally? 

People have various reasons for crossing the borders of the United States unlawfully, but you should know that by doing that you are violating the laws of the country that, if found out, can put you at a high level of risk. Here are some of the penalties for entering the country illegally: 

Deportation: One of the most common penalties that the US immigration authorities impose on individuals crossing the borders unlawfully is deporting them from the country. The process of deportation usually takes place after a trial in the immigration court. 

Fines: Imposing fines on the people entering the United States is another type of civil penalty. The fine amount can be anything between USD 50 to USD 250. The fine value increases or rather doubles if the same person who was already fined for this before reenters the country illegally again. 

For repeated offenses, the offender is penalized with fines for the first time and then a six months imprisonment or both in some cases. However, penalties for reentry can be even more severe in some cases where the individual was convicted of something because of which they were deported before. Such offenders may be sentenced to upto 10 years imprisonment as well. 

What Are Some of the Positive and Negative Effects of Illegal Immigration? 

Illegal Immigrants

Illegal immigration is always a heated topic in the United States and plays a prominent role on both the political and the social ground. While some are completely against undocumented immigrants and feel the need to be removed from the country immediately, some who see the economic growth and the country’s benefits see the optimistic side of having them here. 

Nonetheless, here is a list of the pros and cons of illegal immigration and how they impact the country. 



Illegal immigration leads to diversity which in return paves way for societal development holistically. Other than the racial diversity, there is social and economic divergence among the immigrants. While some have a strong financial background that helps them get approval on a status or to be in the country, some are willing to work hard to provide for their families back home. 

So the undocumented immigrants who work hard-set a great example to others including the citizens and the permanent residents of the country thus promoting work ethics. Working hard for the family in the home country also exhibits good morals and care and concern about the family. 

Cheaper Labor

US employers have cheap labor resources to offer. With the illegal immigrants ready to work for cheaper wages, employers need not hire employees at the usual salary or wage. Another thing is, that undocumented workers are usually ready to do any type of job to earn money and send it to their families back home. So they work hard and achieve what they are asked to do, irrespective of the difficulty level or the risks involved in the job. The citizens on the other hand are more selective about what job they will do, see the risks involved in the job, etc. 

There are hardly any job benefits for undocumented employees or workers. The health, vision, dental benefits, life insurance coverage costs the employer dollars that they save if they hire undocumented employees. This way they either reduce the cost of their products or offer the benefits to the employees that hold legal status in the country.

For Tax Purposes…

Another way to save money significantly for the employers is by escaping from paying the taxes. If they hire undocumented individuals, they do not have to pay the taxes. This is also one of the reasons that the companies can offer the products and services at a lesser cost to their customers which helps them gain customer loyalty. 

Doing the Jobs That Others Don’t Want to Do

The well-to-do Americans hire undocumented individuals for different types of personal services like nanny, maid, chauffeur, etc. This way they get the services at a much cheaper wage than what they need to spend if they are hired through the agencies. Also, the services of the undocumented employees are much better because they are hardworking, with no tantrums and demands like the workers supplied by the agencies. 

Hiring illegal employees means that you are also providing international support by helping the families of the undocumented individuals directly. 


  • Most of the blue-collar jobs that are low-end ones go to undocumented individuals rather than the citizens or permanent residents. This means that the country is losing out a lot in this segment where it could have built the country’s future manpower. 
  • Because the employers aren’t paying the taxes for the jobs held by undocumented immigrants, the government-aided programs that benefit everyone are being reduced in number and eligibility. 
  • With the significant rise in the educational costs, the cost allocated for teaching the undocumented immigrants is being diverted to the children of the individuals who pay the taxes. The illegal immigrants thus have very limited access to educational or learning resources, which is why their learning speed is slower and need more attention to pick up. 
  • In the healthcare field, some practitioners differentiate illegal immigrants from the citizens and deny treating them. This way, these individuals often find it hard to get immediate medical help and other healthcare benefits, because they are turned towards the people who are residing legally. 
  • Illegal immigration cases that are left with no actions taken against them, set a bad example for others. It motivates more immigrants to leave the proper visa processing aside and follow the illegal way of crossing the borders. 
  • Entering the country illegally can lead to a higher number of crimes including terrorism if it is not inspected properly as to who is entering.  This way the legal residents are exposed to higher risks. 
Voting Stats for Migrants


With all the information provided above hope, you know ‘how can an illegal immigrant become legal’. In case you are an undocumented individual seeking more information on the various way you can gain legal status, this article should be able to help you with the different methods possible. You have the right to live a comfortable life and get some of the benefits that you are eligible for. The best thing that you can do is to consult an illegal immigration lawyer so you can go through the application process smoothly with appropriate documentation.  

Frequently Asked Questions(FAQs): 

Why do undocumented individuals do not get legal status? 

It is not a simple process for these individuals to get legal status so easily. It involves a lot of policies and procedures to get through this. Some of the policies are even outdated which makes it difficult for these individuals to obtain legal status. To apply for a green card, they may have to go back to the country for consular processing where they get barred from entering into the country for a certain period as a penalty. Even after the restriction period comes to an end, there is no guarantee that they will be allowed or able to return to the United States to their family.  

Can an undocumented individual attain US Citizenship? 

There are different ways in which an undocumented immigrant can become a permanent resident and gradually to Citizenship in some cases if not all. In the article above, we have listed the different ways in which this is possible with proper documentation and consultation with an immigration lawyer. 

What makes immigrants come to the country without proper documentation? 

Most of the illegal immigrants come to the United States with improper documentation thinking that it is easier for them to get entry into the United States without tackling the processing time of the documents. This is because sometimes, from filing a petition for a legal status to getting approval and being able to work in the country legally may take months and even years in some cases. Some immigrants think that entering the country unlawfully is a quicker way and thus they can get into any low-end, unskilled jobs to earn money and send them back to the family. 

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