I’m Illegal, I Can Still Get a Green Card by Marrying My U.S. Citizen Boyfriend or Girlfriend?
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Note: The Law Offices of Larry L. Doan in Los Angeles, CA, provides the following blog article and other information on this site, including our responses to comments, for the purpose of legal information only; it is NOT legal advice nor does it create an attorney-client relationship.
In a previous post, “It’s Easy for Me to get a Green Card by Marrying My U.S. Citizen Boyfriend or Girlfriend, Right?”, we promised that we would discuss the hard, maybe extremely hard, marriage cases. Well, those are the ones in which the applicant came to this country illegally, the vast majority of times by crossing the border without inspection. There is a huge number of these folks living in the U.S., especially people from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and sometimes mainland China. That’s not a surprise since the U.S. southern border was and still is to some extent relatively easy to cross without inspection.
It usually comes as a shock when we tell these people that even though they are married to a U.S. citizen, they still must go back to their homeland to obtain final approval to return permanently to this country, unless they had a previous immigrant petition filed for them by April 30, 2001. However, most people simply don’t have the benefit of having a previous petition filed for them, so the green card cannot be approved while they are in the U.S. For example, Mexicans in this situation would have to travel to the U.S. Consulate in Juarez, Mexico, which is just across the border from El Paso, Texas, to be interviewed and obtain approval, a process called “consular processing.”
Just across the border from Texas? No problem, let’s book a ticket…
But wait, not so fast! The problem is, these people had been living in the U.S. illegally for many years prior to departing for their homeland. If at least a year illegally, which is common, then the immigration law imposes a harsh 10-year bar against these people from getting their cases approved if they are now in their country trying to apply to return, even if they have a U.S. citizen spouse and children waiting back in the U.S.! This is perhaps even a bigger shock to people. If more than 180 days to less than a year illegally then they face a 3-year bar from returning, which is still too long.
Note: These bars apply not only to people who came to the U.S. illegally and then leave the U.S. (to apply overseas with or without full knowledge of these bars), but also to those who have been out-of-status on their visas (came legally) and then leave the U.S. before getting a green card (the departure is the key, if no departure then no bar). Also, we get asked all the time whether a child “brought” here by his or her parent “unwillingly” is considered to come here illegally. The answer is yes, there’s no excuse! If the child crossed the border without inspection (illegally) with his or her parents or other people, the child will have the 3- or 10-year bar be an obstacle now, unless he or she leaves the U.S. by the time they turn 18 1/2 and is trying to apply from overseas.
We’ve seen many people made this journey without adequate prior information and legal advice, and now they’re stuck in their country without a way of returning to the U.S. except by entering illegally again. Juarez, Mexico, is used here as an example only. If a person came here illegally from a country much further from the U.S., the journey back to the homeland and then being stuck there because of the bar is a scary prospect! Only if they had been illegal in the U.S. for 180 days or less will there be no bar, but not too many people fall into that category. Also, time living illegally in the U.S. while under 18 does not count.
These bars were put into the law by Congress in 1996. Since then, many of us in the immigration law community have been pushing Congress to get rid of them. We may have some success with the new Obama Administration in the next four years. Meantime, the same law that added these bars does provide a way of overcoming them, and that is through what’s known as the “extreme hardship” waiver. Basically, the applicant has to prove to the immigration officer that the denial of their case (which means no visa issued to enter the U.S.) would result in extreme hardship to his or her spouse or a parent, if the spouse or parent happens to be a U.S. citizen or legal resident.
Extreme hardship is not an easy standard to meet. It is not merely the claim that you will be separated from your spouse and family in the U.S. because every one of these cases involves separation. It is something more, encompassing emotional, psychological, financial, and material hardship that the family will suffer. Documents and evidence must be submitted to demonstrate these hardships. For a realistic chance for the waiver to succeed, all the evidence should be marshaled and put together by an immigration attorney experienced in this type of matter. Otherwise, it will be too easy for the consular officer to deny the waiver.
To make it clear, the 3- and 10-year bars do not take effect if the person never leaves the U.S. However, if they remain here, they cannot become legalized under current law if they are not immediate relatives. There is no way to get their papers here! People continue to ask us if there is a way but no, there is absolutely no way to do it while remaining in the U.S., we cannot do magic if it’s not within current law. It’s the person’s choice, of course, to go or to stay. Going will lead to possible approval by the consulate overseas for permanent residence at a considerable risk, while staying will lead to the same old same old of being illegal in the U.S. and not having any papers. It’s really almost a Catch-22 situation for immigrants.
2013 update: For certain applicants who are immediate relatives and who are already in the U.S., a new “provisional waiver” has been available since March 4, 2013, where the applicant can apply for the waiver here rather than being forced to apply only in their home country. Thus, the Catch-22 situation is eliminated for these applicants. However, the applicant has to have a spouse or parent who’s a US citizen or has a green card in order to qualify for this provisional waiver.
When you search the internet for information on green card through marriage, be careful of sites that discuss how the immigrant spouse can file for “adjustment of status,” “adjustment,” or “Form I-485” without even mentioning these bars. “Adjustment of status” is the process of filing for the green card here in the U.S. without having to leave. It simply is not possible if the immigrant came illegally and is now relying on a petition filed after April 30, 2001!
The only exception for the immigrant spouse who came illegally to the U.S. is if he or she had a previous immigrant petition filed for them prior to or on April 30, 2001. This could have been a family I-130 petition filed for them by a relative or former relative who was a U.S. citizen or legal resident, or even a labor certification or employment petition filed for them by an employer offering a permanent job. If that is the case, the good news is that the person does NOT have to travel to the U.S. consulate to get their green card but can adjust their status here. This is the famous 245i law that many immigrants have heard about. They would fall into the “easy” cases described in our previous article. An extra $1,000 penalty is necessary in addition to regular filing fees, but that’s a whole lot better than having to leave the U.S. and be confronted with the 3- or 10-year bar!
Update: A lot of people married to US citizens (or planning to marry) have sent us comments and questions after reading this article, who arrived in the U.S. with a visa or otherwise inspected upon entry, and are worried now that they have been out-of-status for so long. Please note that the article you just read is not applicable to you but to those who crossed the border illegally. Your situation is described in the previous article “It’s Easy for Me to get a Green Card by Marrying My U.S. Citizen Boyfriend or Girlfriend, Right?” As explained there, even if you have been out-of-status for many years, that violation is forgiven if your citizen spouse is going to petition for you for the green card. The 10-year bar will not apply to you unless you make the mistake of leaving the U.S. for whatever reason before receiving the green card.
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