‘Path to citizenship’ part of federal immigration reform

Federal lawmakers are currently in the process of creating one of the largest and most comprehensive immigration reform packages in recent memory. The proposed legislation touches nearly every element of immigration policy, from work, student and family visas to border security and employment verification.

Perhaps the most controversial part of the reform package is the proposal to grant legal status to an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants. If the proposal becomes law, these immigrants would be able to eventually become naturalized U.S. citizens.

Provisional status, then legal residency

The proposal would create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Qualified immigrants would be able to obtain temporary legal status - called "registered provisional immigrant status" - within six months after the bill becomes law. Provisional status would grant immigrants the right to work legally in the United States, but would not grant access to federal health care or welfare benefits.

In order to qualify for provisional status, immigrants must pay a $500 fine and show that they came to the United States before December 31, 2011 and have maintained continuous physical presence in the U.S. Immigrants who have been convicted of one or more felonies or three or more misdemeanors will not be granted provisional status.

Notably, a previous deportation may not necessarily disqualify an immigrant from being granted provisional status. Immigrants who were deported on noncriminal grounds may be eligible to reenter the U.S. on provisional status if they have a spouse or child who is a citizen or legal permanent resident. This exception also applies to previously deported immigrants who were brought to the United States as children.

Once immigrants have been in provisional status for 20 years, they can apply for a green card. In order be granted legal permanent residency, immigrants must have maintained a continuous presence in the United States and must have paid all back taxes. Immigrants seeking permanent legal status must also demonstrate proficiency in the English language.

Undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children would have a shorter waiting period. They would be allowed to seek permanent residency after five years in provisional status.

After three years of legal permanent residency, immigrants participating in this program would be able to seek full citizenship.

Working with an immigration attorney

The proposal is still in negotiations and the terms of the arrangement may change before any reforms are passed.

Regardless of the exact terms of the legislation, it is expected that undocumented immigrants will have to comply with a number of strict requirements in order to attain legal status. As such, it is important to consult with an experienced immigration attorney before seeking provisional status. The attorney will be able to review your individual situation and advise you on the best options for moving forward.