“It doesn’t matter why you came in, it doesn’t matter how old you were, if you were a baby or a toddler, it doesn’t matter when it comes to these sets of laws,” Jeremy McKinney, an attorney and secretary of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told me earlier this month. For the majority of DACA recipients, whose work permits are set to expire in the coming months, Congress passing a law is the only chance they have to gain legal status in the United States.
DACA beneficiaries aside, millions of immigrants meet the criteria to become lawful permanent residents in the United States, but are often subject to a long wait.
The United States has a cap for how many people can apply for a visa from each country. There are three factors that determine who gets approved: what category an individual falls under, how many others are in that category, and when an individual applies. Certain types of people have to wait decades to apply for an immigrant visa, while others take a much shorter amount of time. A U.S. permanent resident’s unmarried son or daughter, who is 21 years old or older, will have to wait roughly 21 years to file an application for an immigrant visa if they’re from Mexico, according to the State Department’s visa bulletin. The delay is a result of too much demand.
“People have this mental image of a line, [and] it’s coming from somewhere—it’s coming from a kernel of truth, and the kernel of truth is in that visa bulletin,” McKinney said. “It’s the general line for everyone except the countries that have used all of their visas—and then, those lines are even worse.”
For those already in the United States on a non-immigrant visa—for example, as a student or employee—they can adjust their status to become lawful permanent residents. But that process, too, can take several years and is only available to some people.
Judge Paul Schmidt, who was appointed in 2003 by Attorney General John Ashcroft and primarily served in the Arlington Immigration Court in northern Virginia before retiring, presided over these types of cases. “The basic requirement is that you have to be inspected at the border and admitted or paroled into the United States, and you have to be maintaining a legal status at the time you applied for adjustment of status, and you have to have not worked [without] authorization prior to filing for adjustment of status,” Schmidt said.
Individuals can remain in the United States as lawful permanent residents indefinitely, though they also have the option to pursue citizenship through naturalization, after residing in the country for a certain number of years. Military-service personnel are unique in that they are eligible for expedited naturalization. “If you are part of the military, any component of the military, during a time of hostilities, which has been in place since 9/11, then you’re eligible for citizenship,” McKinney said. Barring some exceptions, an individual must be a lawful permanent resident to join the military.