As a result, many unauthorized immigrants do not take advantage of laws allowing them to become legal residents. Officials can grant legal status to children who are unauthorized if a state court finds that the child has been neglected, abused, or abandoned by a parent, and that it is not in the child’s best interest to return to his or her home country. Immigration officials also have the discretion to give an unauthorized immigrant permission to leave the United States briefly to apply for a visa and then to re-enter as a lawful permanent resident if a longer separation would cause the individual’s legally present spouse or parent “extreme hardship.” Similarly, immigration judges can grant legal status to long-term, law-abiding unauthorized immigrants whose deportation would cause “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship” to their legally present relatives. Victims of crimes can also qualify for a special visa if a law-enforcement officer attests that they are willing to help in the investigation.
Of course, not all unauthorized immigrants qualify for these pathways to legal status. But a significant number do: A 2014 survey of 67 legal organizations that assisted unauthorized immigrants applying for “deferred action”—a temporary reprieve from removal that does not come with legal status—found that 14.3 percent were also eligible for a more permanent form of immigration relief. It also found that over 3 percent of unauthorized immigrants seeking legal assistance were already citizens, or were eligible for citizenship through a U.S. citizen family member.
The federal government regularly helps people come into compliance with the law, so why not provide further assistance to unauthorized immigrants? Immigration officials could inform unauthorized immigrants of their legal options by notifying those who apply for temporary forms of relief, such as deferred action, that they may have a path to legal status. Similar initiatives have already been rolled out on a small scale in some areas.
Since 2003, the Department of Justice has administered a Legal Orientation Program that provides know-your-rights trainings to unrepresented litigants in detention. In fact, Congress appropriated $1 million to fund the Legal Orientation Program in 2002 and has continued to fund the program ever since—indicating that Congress recognizes the benefits that come from educating unauthorized immigrants about their legal rights. In 2014, judges on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit helped to spur the creation of New York’s Immigrant Justice Corps—a nonprofit group that represents immigrants in the city who are in removal proceedings. These programs have all helped unauthorized immigrants apply for legal status, and they have streamlined the removal process for those who do not have that option. Still, these initiatives have only been successful in helping discrete pockets of the population; they still fall short of addressing the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.