Why Don’t Immigrants Apply for Citizenship?

Many people wonder why all immigrants do not just come to the United States legally or simply apply for citizenship while living here without authorization. These suggestions miss the point: There is no line available for current unauthorized immigrants and the “regular channels” are largely not available to prospective immigrants who end up entering the country through unauthorized channels. Even though most unauthorized immigrants have lived in the United States for nearly 15 years, many could live out the rest of their lives without any opportunity to become legal residents of this country.

No “line” is available for the vast majority of unauthorized immigrants.

Immigration to the United States on a temporary or permanent basis is generally limited to three different routes: employment, family reunification, or humanitarian protection. Each of these possibilities is highly regulated and subject to numerical limitations and eligibility requirements. As a result, most unauthorized immigrants do not have the necessary family or employment relationships and often cannot access humanitarian protection, such as refugee or asylum status. This means that no matter how long they have been in the United States, most unauthorized immigrants have no path to legal status. Even those who pay taxes, work hard, and contribute to their communities, have no way to “get in line” unless Congress were to create a new path to legal status.

Many unauthorized immigrants are barred from obtaining legal status while inside the United States.

Unauthorized 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 leaving the country because of how they entered the United States.

Leaving the country to obtain a visa can have significant negative consequences as well. Any person who has been out of status for more than six months is barred from any legal immigration status for three years—or 10 years if the person has been out of status for more than a year. Although waivers to these bars exist, they are difficult to obtain. This means that even where a visa is available, many unauthorized immigrants must risk spending 10 years away from their families before being allowed to reenter.

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