How Can an Illegal Immigrant Get a Green Card?

If you live in the United States illegally, you may be able to adjust your status and become a permanent lawful resident. There are four different pathways to becoming a lawful permanent resident, as discussed in this article. 

Key Takeaways

  • The term ‘illegal immigrant’ is outdated and often replaced by ‘undocumented immigrant’.
  • The abbreviation EWI (Entered Without Inspection) is used by immigration officials to describe undocumented immigrants.
  • If you are an illegal immigrant, you can get a green card through marriage, Dream Act, Asylum, and a U Visa. 
  • Each pathway to green card has its unique eligibility requirements.

What Does It Mean to Enter the U.S. Lawfully?

The term ‘lawful entry’ means you arrived at the U.S. point of entry and were admitted to the United States by an immigration officer. This term is usually subject to further interpretation. For example, you do not necessarily need a visa or proof of entry to show that you entered the country lawfully.

For example, you entered the country in someone’s car. The vehicle passed through immigration and customs officials and was granted entry into the U.S. In addition, the immigration officer waved you in. This could be a case of lawful entry.

However, you will likely have a rough time proving that the officer waved you in. This is especially true if you do not have proof of your I-94 Arrival/Departure record, a visa, a passport stamp, or any other document confirming your legal entry into the country.

Green Card Through Marriage

You may be able to obtain a green card by marrying a U.S. citizen or a lawful permanent resident (green card holder). However, for this option to work, you must have entered the United States lawfully.

To get the green card through the marriage process, you will need to fill out the following forms:

  • Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status: This form formally notifies the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) of your intention to change your status from undocumented immigrant to lawful permanent resident. 
  • Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative: This form is filled out by the sponsor, in this case, the U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident sponsoring the beneficiary (undocumented immigrant).
  • Form I-130A, Supplemental Information of Spouse Beneficiary: As the name suggests, this form is meant to provide additional information about the undocumented immigrant. 
  • Form I-864, Affidavit of Support: The sponsor will need this form to show that the intending immigrant has proper financial support and will not rely on the U.S. government for public benefits. In other words, the intending immigrant will not be a ‘public charge’. 
  • Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization: When you are an undocumented immigrant, you are not allowed to work in the United States without the government’s approval. This is because undocumented immigrants do not have social security, meaning they do not pay taxes to the Internal Revenue Service. By filling out Form I-175, you petition the U.S. government to allow you to work legally in the United States and pay taxes. 

Green Card as a DREAMer

You may be eligible for a green card through the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, popularly known as the DREAM Act. To be eligible for a green card through this process, you must have received higher education, making you a prime target for higher-skilled jobs in the United States. 

In that case, you can have your employer sponsor you for a green card. If they agree to do so, they will need to go through a process known as Labor Certification or the Program Electronic Review Management (PERM).

The primary purpose of this process is to prove that the U.S. employer cannot find an American worker available to fill that particular job position and that the wages will not be reduced by hiring foreign workers.

If your employer agrees to sponsor you for a PERM green card, you may still need to leave the United States due to your illegal entry and reenter the country when the green card has been processed. But there is an exception to this rule; you may be allowed to remain in the United States if you have 245(i) protection

Green Card Through Asylum

You may be able to apply for a green card through asylum if you have a genuine fear of persecution in your home country. For this to work, you would need to apply for asylum in the United States by filing out Form I-589, Application for Asylum and for Withholding of Removal. You will also need to provide evidence to support your claim. 

After applying for asylum, you will receive a receipt from the USCIS informing you that you may keep living in the United States until the USCIS is ready to invite you for an interview.

Until then, you may be able to apply for a temporary work permit by filing Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization. 

After reviewing your asylum application, the USCIS will invite you to an interview. The purpose of the interview is to establish whether you have a credible fear of returning to your home country, either due to your:

  • race;
  • religion;
  • nationality;
  • political opinion; and
  • affiliation with a particular social group. 

If the USCIS official establishes that you have a credible fear of returning to your country, you will be granted legal status. One year after being granted asylum, you may be able to apply for a green card

To do this, you must:

  • be physically present in the United States at the time of applying for your green card;
  • continue to meet the definition of an asylee or be the spouse or child of an asylee;
  • continue to be admissible to the United States, meaning you did not do anything that would jeopardize your eligibility for a green card through asylum. Examples of reasons for inadmissibility include: participating in a crime, drug abuse, prior immigration law violations, involvement in terrorism, or having certain contagious diseases; and 
  • demonstrate that you did not abandon your asylee status by traveling or resettling outside the United States.

Generally, when applying for a green card through asylum, you must:

  • Fill out Form I-485 to adjust your status;
  • Fill out Form I-693, Report of Medical Exam and Vaccination Record;
  • Provide proof of being granted asylee status;
  • Provide proof that you have been residing in the United States for the past year:
  • Provide two passport-style photos.

Green Card as a Victim of Crime (U Visa)

Victims of certain crimes may be eligible for a green card through the U Visa program. This visa program was created to protect non-citizens who are victims of certain crimes and have aided law enforcement. The whole point of this immigration benefit is to encourage victims of these crimes to cooperate with the police.

Some common examples of these crimes include:

  • Abduction
  • Blackmail
  • Prostitution
  • Domestic violence
  • Rape
  • Sexual assault
  • Torture
  • Trafficking
  • Kidnapping
  • Murder
  • False imprisonment 

Before the launch of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act, many non-citizens whose rights had been abused and violated were afraid of collaborating with law enforcement due to the risk of being deported. 

U Visa Eligibility Requirements

To be eligible for a U Visa, you must:

  • be a victim of a qualifying criminal activity. The USCIS has a list of qualifying criminal activities on their website;
  • have suffered substantial mental or physical abuse due to being a victim of the qualifying criminal activities;
  • have information about the qualifying criminal activity. However, if you are under 16 or cannot provide the information due to a disability, your parent, guardian, or friend should be able to provide it on your behalf;
  • show that you collaborated with, are actively collaborating with, or are likely to collaborate with law enforcement in the investigation or prosecution of the qualifying criminal activity; 
  • show that the crime occurred in the U.S. or was a violation of U.S. laws; and
  • be admissible to the United States. If not admissible, you can file Form I-192, Application for Advance Permission to Enter as a Nonimmigrant. 

After getting your U nonimmigrant visa, you may be able to apply for a green card three years after the date you received your U visa status.

Read More | U-Visa to Green Card Guide

However, it is also worth noting that the USCIS grants this visa based on humanitarian grounds, to ensure family unity, or if the matter is of public interest. Therefore, participating in certain activities, such as crimes and drug abuse, might prevent you from getting a green card. 

Another thing you need to know is that you must apply for a green card before your status ends. To find out when your status expires, check the approval letter you received from the USCIS or your employment authorization.

Illegal Immigrants And Green Card FAQs

Can Illegal Immigrants Get a Green Card?

Yes, undocumented immigrants can get a green card through four pathways as of 2022. They include:

  • Green card through marriage to a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident;
  • Green cards through the Dream Act;
  • Green card through asylum;
  • Green card through U Non immigrant Visa.

Can a Permanent Resident Marry an Illegal Immigrant?

Yes, a permanent resident can marry an undocumented immigrant. In addition, the undocumented immigrant might also be able to apply for a green card after meeting certain conditions set by the USCIS. 

How Long Can an Illegal Immigrant Stay in the U.S.?

Individuals who overstay their visit to the United States for more than 180 days can be banned from reentering the country for three years. Anyone who has overstayed their visit for over a year can be banned from visiting the country for 10 years. 

Can I Sponsor an Illegal Immigrant?

Yes, you can sponsor a qualifying illegal immigrant if you are a lawful permanent resident or an American citizen. You may be able to do this by filing for a green card through marriage, one of the four most common pathways to permanent residence for certain undocumented immigrants.

Can an Illegal Immigrant Get Married in the U.S.?

Yes, illegal immigrants can get married in the U.S. However, getting married in the country does not mean they will automatically receive a green card. Aside from getting married to a lawful permanent resident or a green card holder, the illegal immigrant must also meet other eligibility requirements to obtain a green card through this pathway. 

Can Two Undocumented Immigrants Get Married?

Yes, two undocumented immigrants can get married in the U.S. However, the marriage will not change their immigration status. And, in some cases, it might not be legally recognized in their home country. 

Can Illegal Immigrants Apply for Green Card Lottery?

Illegal immigrants can apply for a green card lottery. The only time they may not be allowed to apply for the lottery is if they are from a country not part of the program for that year. 

Can an Illegal Immigrant Become Legal After 5 Years?

Your immigration status does not change solely based on your time in the United States. That said, if you are at risk of deportation by an immigration court, you can file a petition for Cancellation of Removal based on the following reasons: 

  • You have been living in the United States for at least 10 years;
  • You are a person of good moral character;
  • You have an immediate family member who is a U.S. citizen, and your deportation could cause them extreme hardship. 

If you had a visa overstay, talk to an experienced immigration lawyer or contact a reputable immigration law firm. The immigration attorney will review the specifics of your case and determine your options to obtain legal immigration status. You may need to pay legal fees but it will be worth it.

What is the Difference Between an Illegal and Undocumented Immigrant?

The terms ‘illegal immigrant’ and ‘undocumented immigrant’ are often used interchangeably because they mean the same thing; an individual who lives in a country without official permission to live there. However, the term ‘illegal immigrant’ or ‘illegal alien’ is outdated and controversial.

Over the past few years, there have been debates about whether the term ‘illegal immigrant’ is politically, socially, and morally correct. Those against this term argue that no human being is illegal regardless of where they live. For this reason, the term ‘undocumented immigrant’ is more popular. 


  • Commit To Citizenship Staff

    Commit To Citizenship‘s team consists of individuals who have successfully immigrated to the United States and have learned how to avoid common mistakes in filling out immigration applications. Our team works closely with immigration lawyers to ensure that all content provided on our website is up-to-date and accurate. We offer guidance on a range of immigration topics, including green cards, diversity visas, and DACA.