Will you need to leave the United States while you wait for your permanent resident application to be processed? The short answer: It depends. Some people can stay in the U.S. for the entire period of applying for a U.S. green card (lawful permanent residence). Others must leave the U.S., either while they wait for a visa to become available or in order to attend their immigrant visa interview. We'll address both these situations below.
(Note: If you're not already living in the U.S., then this article doesn't apply to you. The immigration authorities prefer that you wait outside the U.S. for the entire period of applying for the green card, and attend an interview at a U.S. consulate in your home country, where you will receive an immigrant visa. With that visa, you can enter the U.S. and become a lawful permanent resident, or green card holder.)
Is an immigrant visa or green card immediately available to you? It is, for example, if you are an immediate relative of a U.S. citizen (the spouse, parent, or unmarried child under 21), or if you are applying based on having received asylum or refugee status in the U.S, or are applying through an employer in a category where there are fewer applicants each year than the number of available visas. In such a case, the question of whether you need to leave the U.S. is simply a question of whether you're allowed to apply for your green card without leaving the U.S., through the procedure known as "adjustment of status" rather than consular processing, which we'll discuss in the next section, below.
However, if you are applying for a green card through a family member or employer and your eligibility category makes you a "preference" beneficiary, then you may have to spend time on a waiting list. Your petitioner (family member or employer) will have started the green card application process for you by filing a visa petition on Form I-130 or I-140 with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Once that petition is approved, you receive a "Priority Date," or a place on the waiting list. See "Keep Track of Your Priority Date for a Green Card or Visa" to better understand this process. The key thing to realize is that you don't receive any right to remain in the U.S. while you wait for your Priority Date to become current.
Unless you already have a visa or status that allows you to remain in the U.S. legally, you must (as a preference beneficiary whose Priority Date isn't current) leave the U.S. and wait to apply for your green card. If you don't leave, and you spend time in the U.S. unlawfully, you put your very right to receive the green card at risk. See "Three- and Ten-Year Time Bars (Inadmissibility) for Unlawful Presence" for more information on this issue.
Now let's say you are not only eligible for a green card, but you have a current Priority Date or are otherwise immediately eligible for a green card. That doesn't necessarily mean you will be allowed to complete the application process in the U.S., by doing what's called "adjusting status." In order to be eligible for adjustment of status:
If you aren’t eligible to adjust because of an illegal entry or other visa violation, you must fit within an old law called 245(i). This means you can adjust status, upon payment of a $1,000 penalty fee, if you were:
If you are, in fact, eligible to adjust status, then you will have a right to remain in the U.S. just as soon as your application has been submitted to USCIS and it has acknowledged receipt. Assuming you applied for a work permit along with your adjustment of status application, USCIS should send you one fairly soon, allowing you to work while you wait for the AOS interview where your application will be decided upon. (If you are out of status at the moment and planning to apply for adjustment of status however, try to get your application in quickly. Otherwise, if you are arrested, you will have to present your application in immigration court.)
This is a difficult area of law, and figuring out whether you fit within one of these exceptions is best done with the help of an attorney.
Look for a qualified and experienced immigration attorney who routinely handles adjustment of status cases and can explain to you the rules and your rights and assist you with the paperwork.