I have been living in California for about ten years, but do
not have any immigration papers. Is there a way for me to get a green card
here? Where would I go to apply?
If you are living in California and are undocumented (or
have a visa or status that will run out soon), the first thing to understand is
that immigration law is federal. In other words, it mostly does not matter what
U.S. state you live in – your prospects for obtaining lawful permanent
residence in the U.S. (a green card) depend on the same set of immigration laws
that applies across the whole country.
For more information on who qualifies for U.S. permanent
residence, see Nolo's sections on "How to Get a Green
Card" and "Immigration
Options for Undocumented Immigrants."
Unfortunately, as someone who has been living in the U.S. unlawfully,
your chances of qualifying for a green card are slim – but worth looking into
nonetheless. You should check with an experienced immigration attorney for a
full personal analysis.
You may have heard rumors that ten years of living in the
U.S. qualifies you for a green card, but those rumors are only partially true,
as described in, "Green
Card Through Cancellation of Removal (Non-LPR): Who Qualifies?." Most
importantly, you can apply for cancellation only if you've already been placed
into immigration court proceedings. (Another possibility to look into: If you arrived in the U.S. while you were
young, you might at least qualify for a temporary work permit under the DACA
Of course, there's a chance that you will be arrested by U.S.
immigration authorities who discover that you are living in California
unlawfully and place you into court proceedings. For what happens after an
arrest, see Nolo's articles on "Noncitizens
in Deportation or Removal Proceedings."
Unless you already have an order of deportation on your
record, you should be given an opportunity to present your defenses to deportation – possibly
including cancellation of removal -- in front of an immigration
judge. The immigration court offices in California are found in Adelanto, San
Diego, El Centro, Imperial, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. See the "EOIR Immigration Court
Listing" for more information.
One last thing to realize about living in California is that
it's part of the Ninth Circuit group of federal courts. That means that if you
had to appeal denials of your immigration case all the way to the federal court
of appeals, the law developed within the Ninth Circuit would apply. This can
actually cause differences in how a case is treated. For instance, different
circuit courts sometimes take different views of the seriousness of a crime
committed by an immigrant.
If you are not arrested, and happen to qualify for a green
card, the first petition or application that you file (or that a family or
employer files for you, as your petitioner or sponsor) will probably be by
mail. It might not even be to an office in California.
As a later step in your application, you would, however,
probably need to visit an office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
(USCIS) for an in-person interview. USCIS offices that serve the public – usually
called "Field Offices" -- can be found in Chula Vista, Fresno,
Imperial, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Fernando, San
Francisco, San Jose, and Santa Ana. See the USCIS "Field
Offices" list for more information.