Currently, roughly 600,000 to 700,000 individuals live and work in the United States with DACA status out of an estimated 3.6 to 4 million undocumented individuals who arrived in our country while under the age of 18.
These DACA recipients (and the associated undocumented Dreamers who never filed for DACA status) often face difficult challenges in their everyday lives, usually due to their lack of official immigration status.
As a result, many of these individuals are searching for a way to qualify for a more stable legal status, such as permanent residency.
In this article, we’ll explore the basics of how DACA recipients (and, by extension, undocumented Dreamers) could become lawful permanent residents of the United States.
Note, however, that this is a topic that requires completely up-to-date information, so you’ll want to speak with an attorney before you make any lasting decisions in your case.
The Basics of the Green Card Process
When an individual successfully applies to be a lawful permanent resident of the United States, the government will issue them a Permanent Resident Card.
This card is better known as a “green card” due to its distinctive color.
As you might expect from the name, this card shows that an immigrant can permanently reside in the United States.
This means that once you have a green card, you don’t have to worry about updating your visa or adhering to the strict requirements imposed on temporary visitors.
In fact, the only real rules once you have a green card are “don’t commit any major crimes,” “don’t live outside the country for too long,” and “don’t forget to renew your green card every so often.”
In order to apply for a green card you must qualify under one of USCIS’s designated categories, such as family or employment.
Each category has its own eligibility requirements and a different path towards citizenship.
However, the basic steps for all of the categories remain the same:
- Step 1. Determine Your Eligibility for a Green Card — First, you should determine whether you meet the requirements for any of the eligibility categories used by USCIS. Generally, you should speak to an attorney about this topic, as there are a variety of reasons for USCIS to deem you ineligible for permanent residency. If you entered the country unlawfully or accrued any unlawful presence while living in the country (as expanded on in the next section), you must speak to an attorney about the options available to you.
- Step 2. Have a Family Member or an Employer Petition for You — In the event you’re otherwise eligible for a green card (or, put another way, if you’re not inadmissible), you should begin the work for applying for your green card. Often, this means having a family member or employer petition on your behalf. Note that, in some cases, you may be able to perform this step and step 3 at the same time with some extra coordination on the part of your attorney.
- Step 3. Apply for Your Green Card and Attend Appointments — Once your family member or employer agrees to petition for you, you’ll have to apply using Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status. Note that you may also have to complete other tasks as a part of this step, such as attending various interviews or submitting additional forms.
- Step 4. Receive Your Green Card — Once you’re approved, USCIS will send you your green card in the mail. Note, however, that it may take USCIS several months to finish up all your paperwork, so patience is the best policy at this stage in the process.
Through this process, around 600,000 individuals gain permanent resident status every year.
Unlawful Presence Explained: What you Need to Know about the Biggest Barrier DACA Recipients Face
As we noted above, the first step in applying for a green card is determining whether or not you’re eligible for permanent residency in the first place.
For DACA recipients (and dreamers in general) this presents a complex set of problems.
For example, individuals who apply for entry into the United States (or who apply for status while living in the country without authorization) must not be deemed “inadmissible” as the term is defined in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).
Aliens to the United States may be deemed inadmissible for any of the following grounds:
- Health-Related Grounds — Such as if they have a communicable disease.
- Criminal and Related Grounds — Such as if they have felony offenses on their record.
- Security and Related Grounds — For matters of national security, such as suspected terrorist activity.
- Public Charge Grounds — For individuals who, in the opinion of the official in charge of the application, is likely to use significant public resources at any time during their stay.
- Illegal Entrants and Immigration Violators — With few exceptions, individuals who are unlawfully present in the United States (i.e. are present without being admitted or paroled) for more than 180 days are deemed inadmissible. Note, however, that you cannot accrue unlawful presence while under the age of 18 (an important factor for DACA recipients) or if you filed your DACA application before your 18th birthday.
- Misc. Immigration Issues — As a summary of the remaining reasons for inadmissibility, you may also be denied entry or status as a result of documentation issues, for being ineligible for citizenship, for being previously removed (deported) from the country, for voting illegally, or for a variety of other miscellaneous reasons outlined in the INA.
Bullet number 5 above is especially important in the contexts of this article, as DACA recipients and dreamers as a whole are highly likely to have accrued unlawful presence while living in the United States.
This means that they cannot gain permanent resident status without rectifying this issue first.
Specifically, any time between the date you turned 18 and the date you receive DACA status counts as accruing unlawful presence, meaning that most DACA recipients have at least some unlawful presence on their record.
In the event you have unlawful presence on your record, you’ll need to take certain steps to rectify this problem before you can become eligible for permanent residency.
In this situation, you must speak with an attorney about your case, as it can be incredibly difficult to navigate the complexities of applying for permanent residency with unlawful presence on your record.
If you’d like to learn more about this process, please check out these guides on the subject:
- Requesting Advance Parole and Traveling Outside the United States Under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — Immigrant Legal Resource Center (IRLC)
- Travel for DACA Applicants (Advance Parole) — Immigrant Legal Resource Center (IRLC)
Or, call our office to discuss some possible solutions for your case.
The Current Green Card Process for Dreamers
As you can see from the section above, the first step in any green card application is determining whether or not the individual is eligible for a green card under one of the current application categories.
Currently, and most importantly, having Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) status does not, by itself, allow for a path to a green card and citizenship.
For this reason, most DACA recipients will instead search for alternate methods of gaining permanent residency.
For example, the most common way for DACA recipients to gain a green card is to marry a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.
Then, as a result of this relationship, the DACA spouse can apply for a green card as a family preference immigrant by having their U.S. citizen or permanent resident partner file a petition with USCIS on their behalf.
We’ll outline a few of the most common processes below, but the important thing to keep in mind is that DACA does not, by itself, lead to a green card or citizenship as the law currently stands.
Instead, DACA is simply an assurance that you won’t be deported, as well as a way for you to work legally in the country until your situation changes.
Option 1. Marry a U.S. Citizen or Permanent Resident
As we noted above, one of the most common ways for DACA recipients to gain a green card is as a result of their marriage to a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.
Specifically, your U.S. citizen or permanent resident spouse can petition USCIS to give you a green card because of your relationship as spouses.
This process is common simply due to the fact that most DACA recipients have lived in the country for years if not decades, thus raising the probability that they will marry someone who is already a citizen or permanent resident.
Note, however, that marrying someone simply to gain a green card is a serious offense that can result in the loss of any immigration benefits you may have gained, as well as deportation.
USCIS takes a hard stance against cases of marriage fraud, so you should only pursue this method if you truly and wholeheartedly want to marry your significant other.
Option 2. Apply for a Family-Based Green Card
As an extension of the marriage option above, you should note that a close family relationship with any U.S. citizen or permanent resident may also qualify you for a green card.
Specifically, you may be eligible for a family-based green card if you are your U.S. citizen relative’s:
- Spouse (as noted above)
- Child (regardless of whether you’re married or unmarried)
Similarly, if your relative is a permanent resident you may qualify if you are their spouse or unmarried child.
This means that if one of your relatives (as listed above) receives citizenship or a green card, they may also be able to send a petition to USCIS to get you a green card as well as a direct result of your relationship.
This process is especially common for cases where a DACA recipient has a child who, as a result of being born in the United States, holds U.S. citizenship.
Option 3. Pursue Additional Green Card Options
Finally, you should note that there are several other ways of applying for a green card, such as through employment or through exceptional circumstances (such as if you were the victim of a major crime).
Specifically, USCIS lists all of the following eligibility categories on their website as valid reasons to apply for a green card:
- Family (as described above)
- Employment (such as EB-3 for skilled professionals)
- Special Immigrant Status (such as religious workers or individuals with Special Immigrant Juvenile Status)
- Refugee or Asylee Status (for individuals fleeing persecution or other similarly harsh conditions)
- Victims of Human Trafficking, Crime, or Other Forms of Abuse
- Other Miscellaneous Policies that Lead to a Green Card
For DACA recipients, the best options are likely the first method (family, as described above), the second method (employment), and the fourth method (refugee or asylee status).
DACA recipients who are also the victims of serious crimes may also be able to apply in certain situations.
Future Green Card Possibilities: The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 and Others
As we noted above, DACA recipients do not have a path to citizenship solely on the basis of their DACA status.
However, the general trend in immigration politics is shifting towards opening up ways for DACA recipients to legally file for a green card as a result of this status.
This fact has been especially apparent since President Biden took office, most notably in his proposed version of the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021.
We’ll outline this and one other proposed change below, but please keep in mind that immigration law is constantly changing, and only speaking with an immigration attorney can give you an accurate and up-to-date view of the current immigration landscape.
The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021
President Biden proposed his plan for the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 on January 20th, just a few days after taking office.
While the bill has been introduced in both the House and Senate, this document acts more as a roadmap or policy statement than a bill that will actually be passed into law.
Specifically, the bill addresses three broad goals that the Biden administration hopes to meet over the next few years:
- Provide pathways to citizenship and strengthen labor protections for immigrants.
- Prioritize smart border controls.
- Address the root causes of migration, starting from the source.
You can read more about each of these goals in the White House press briefing on the bill:
- Fact Sheet: President Biden Sends Immigration Bill to Congress as Part of His Commitment to Modernize Our Immigration System
Importantly for this article, the bill proposes an earned roadmap to permanent residency and citizenship for Dreamers, TPS holders, and immigrant farmworkers who meet certain requirements.
The American Dream and Promise Act of 2021
The American Dream and Promise Act of 2021 is a bill that was introduced into the House on March 3, 2021.
Protections included in the bill would provide a path to citizenship to approximately 2.3 million Dreamers, including approximately 700,000 DACA recipients.
Individuals with Temporary Protected Status (TPS) or Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) would also have an opportunity to remain in the country under this act (among a few other smaller groups).
The primary intention of this bill is to provide a path to legal status for many individuals who are not covered by the current laws (particularly Dreamers).
Specifically, the bill proposes a path in which individuals could apply for conditional permanent resident status, which will be valid for up to 10 years.
Then, they could apply to remove the conditions on their permanent residency by either (1) graduating from college, (2) serving in the military, or (3) working for three years under a valid employment authorization.
The bill also proposes other quality of life changes, such as allowing Dreamers access to federal financial aid and directing DHS to streamline and update the process in the future.
DACA recipients face many unique challenges, and often feel that their status in the United States perpetually rests in limbo.
For this reason, many attempt to apply for green cards or other forms of immigration relief as a way of solidifying their place in the country.
Currently, the only way for DACA recipients to get a green card is through the normal channels, such as through marriage or as a result of employment.
However, things are quickly changing.
Recent bills such as the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 and the American Dream and Promise Act of 2021 propose possible paths to permanent residency and citizenship for DACA recipients, but have yet to be signed into law.
Further, the general trend in immigration law is shifting in the favor of opening up a path to citizenship for DACA recipients, so you can look out for further changes on the horizon.
Finally, if you have any questions about the green card process, or would like to know more about the changes to DACA that are on the horizon, you should speak with an immigration attorney about your case.
Relevant Laws and Bills
- U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 (House Version)
- U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 (Senate Version)
- American Dream and Promise Act of 2021 (House Version)
- Fact Sheet: President Biden Sends Immigration Bill to Congress as Part of His Commitment to Modernize Our Immigration System (White House) — The brief released by the White House on the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021.
- Bill Summary: American Dream and Promise Act of 2021 (National Immigration Forum) — A good summary of the basic facts of the American Dream and Promise Act.
- Requesting Advance Parole and Traveling Outside the United States Under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (Immigrant Legal Resource Center) — A quick summary of how to get around the bar on individuals with unlawful presence.
- Travel for DACA Applicants (Advance Parole) (Immigrant Legal Resource Center) — Another resource for individuals interested in advance parole.
- American Dream and Promise Act of 2021: Who is Potentially Eligible? (Migration Policy Institute) — A helpful infographic showing who is potentially eligible for a green card under this act.