Can an Undocumented Immigrant Get a Green Card Through Marriage To U.S. Citizen or Resident?

Undocumented (illegal) immigrants can get permanent residency through marriage, but it's not a simple process.

If you are one of the many U.S. citizens or permanent residents who have married an undocumented (or illegal) immigrant, then you may be hoping to help that person get a green card and settle into your life together in the United States. However, we have both good news and bad news for you.

Eligibility for Green Card (Permanent Residence) Based on Marriage

The good news is that, under the U.S. immigration laws, immigrants who marry U.S. citizens or permanent residents are among the categories of people allowed to apply for green cards.

If the marriage is to a U.S. citizen, then the immigrant is an "immediate relative," meaning that an unlimited number of immigrant visas (green cards) are available in that category every year, so the immigrant won't end up on a waiting list.

If the marriage is to a U.S. lawful permanent resident (green card holder), then the immigrant is in preference category 2A, meaning there are a limited number of visas every year, so the immigrant will be on a waiting list. But it's not as long a wait as in some other categories. 

Complicating Factor: Not Everyone Eligible for a Green Card Can Adjust Status and Receive One

Now for the bad news. Whether the immigrant can "adjust status" -- that is, apply for a green card without leaving the United States -- depends on whether he or she fits into one of a few narrow exceptions. The immigrant can adjust status only if he or she either:

  • legally entered the U.S. with a visa or after inspection by an immigration officer (and wasn't just using the visa with the intention of applying for a green card based on marriage, which happens to be visa fraud) and is either marrying a U.S. citizen or still on a valid visa, or
  • had a visa petition or labor certification filed for him or her several years ago when a law called "245(i)" was still in force.

If, however, the immigrant entered the United States by unlawful means, such as having been a stowaway or crossing over the border through a fence, adjustment of status is not an option. The only possibility is to apply for the green card through "consular processing," meaning the immigrant will attend an interview at a U.S. embassy or consulate in his or her home country. That, however, carries a risk of not being allowed back into the U.S. for many years -- three years if the period of unlawful presence was 180 days or more, and ten years if the period of unlawful stay was one year or more.

Visa Fraud Issue When Adjusting Status

As if the law weren't already complicated enough, immigrants who entered legally and are hoping to adjust status based on marriage may be scrutinized by the immigration official deciding their case as to whether their entry was truly lawful -- or whether the immigrant was misusing a visa by secretly planning to apply for a green card after entry.

For example, someone who comes to the United States as a student, meets and marries a U.S. citizen, and then applies to adjust status should have no problem getting a green card approved -- even if the immigrant turns in the adjustment of status application after a visa overstay, perhaps long after graduating.

But someone who applies for any visa other than a fiancé visa to come to the U.S. having wedding plans already in mind, would not be eligible for a green card -- at least, not without applying for a waiver (legal forgiveness).

For example many people use tourist visas to come to the United States to meet their U.S. boyfriend or girlfriend. If they aren't sure about whether they want to get married, but end up marrying and applying for a green card, that's okay. But if they already planned to marry and were just using the tourist visa to make the process faster and easier, that's not okay. In fact, it's considered visa fraud, and can not only destroy the immigrant's eligibility for a green card, but for future visas to the United States. Again, the only hope would be to consult an attorney and apply for a waiver. 

Risks of Consular Processing

An immigrant who has lived in the United States unlawfully and then leaves the country for consular processing risks being penalized for the illegal stay by being forbidden from reentering the United States for three to ten years, or perhaps permanently. Consult an attorney for the details and a full personal analysis.

It may be possible to file for a waiver (on Form I-601) allowing an earlier return, but definitely seek legal advice before relying on this strategy. The spouse of the illegal immigrant must show that he, she, or their children will suffer hardship if the immigrant is refused reentry.

Talk to a Lawyer First

The information contained above is only a brief outline of adjustment of status rights for an illegal immigrant. The law is complicated, and contains both pitfalls and useful exceptions. Please consult an immigrant lawyer about your specific circumstances.  

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