The U.S. government allows non-citizen spouses, widows, widowers, parents, sons, and daughters of U.S. military members and veterans to apply for something called "parole in place (PIP)." It's not a separate immigration status, but it can be helpful in gaining status. If the only reason that you do not qualify to adjust status (apply for and receive a green card while in the U.S.) is that you entered the U.S. without a visa or lawful entry, being granted parole in place will allow you to move ahead with your application. Be aware, however, that it's considered only on a case-by-case basis, and approved only when this would enable military family unity that would constitute a significant public benefit.
"Parole in place" (PIP) is a temporary right to remain in the U.S. (in one-year increments) and apply to USCIS for a work permit (employment authorization document or EAD). The program also provides noncitizen spouses, parents, and unmarried minor children of U.S. citizen members of the U.S. military (current or past) who are in the U.S. after an unlawful entry a path to a U.S. green card that is not available to others.
PIP allows people who already qualify for a green card based on this close family relationship to "adjust status"—that is, apply for lawful permanent residence or a green card—without leaving the United States, despite their past illegal entry and unlawful stay. (See I.N.A. § 212(d)(5)(A), 8 U.S.C. § 1182(d)(5)(A).)
(If you are already in removal/deportation proceedings or have a final order of removal on their immigration record, you might still be able to obtain PIP, but it will require you to persuade Immigration and Customs Enforcement or "ICE" to join in your motion (request) to the court that it reopen and/or terminate the proceedings.)
Other immigrants in similar situations whose family members are not U.S. military members, or who overstayed a visa, are not allowed to adjust status, but must leave the U.S. for "consular processing" in order to complete their application for a green card—at which point they might face a three- or ten-year bar upon return, as a penalty for their past unlawful presence. This very trap has kept many noncitizen family members of U.S. military service-people from applying for a green card in the past, and created anxiety for all concerned. (The "provisional waiver" can help with this, but not everyone qualifies for it.)
You are PIP-eligible if you entered the U.S. unlawfully and are the spouse, widow, widower, son, or daughter of a person who is:
PIP eligibility isn't automatic for people in these three groups, but they are the only ones who can ask for it.
Here's who will not be granted PIP: Anyone with a criminal conviction or other "serious adverse factors." And again, parole in place can be granted only on a "discretionary" basis, which means the immigration authorities don't have to grant it if they don't want to—they have to first be convinced that the applicant deserves their help, particularly for "urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit."
You can't jump straight to applying for your green card (adjustment of status). If you do, your application will be rejected. You must first apply for PIP. To do so, prepare and submit the following to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS):
There is no fee for this application. See the Form I-131 page of the USCIS website for a free download of the form. You must mail all of these documents to the USCIS field office that handles cases in your area. Keep in mind that some USCIS field offices require more information than what's listed as the minimum above. For example, many require a written statement describing how you entered the U.S., or proof that an I-130 petition has been filed for you.
After USCIS has reviewed your application, it may decide to call you in for an interview. Typically these are short interviews, perhaps even at a filing or intake window rather than an actual office. Nevertheless, if USCIS feels it needs more information in your case, it can conduct a more extensive interview.
If granted PIP, you will receive a letter from USCIS that includes an I-94 card. This card will have an expiration date (usually one year away) and is proof that you are allowed to remain in the U.S. for that time. It is very important that you keep this card safe, because it's proof of both your status and of possible eligibility for other benefits.
For example, you might now be able to apply to USCIS for a work permit. And as described above, if the only reason you could not apply for a green card previously was because you entered the U.S. unlawfully, you might also be able to go ahead and apply for a green card.
Not everyone will be helped by the PIP policy. First, you need to figure out whether you are in one of the categories of family members who are eligible as an "immediate relative," that is, either a U.S. citizen's:
An immediate relative is technically eligible for a green card right away, without waiting in line. But you must still get through the application process—which PIP makes easier.
Once you have obtained approval of your parole in place, you can proceed with filing an I-130 petition (prepared and signed by the U.S. citizen, if they haven't already done so) and adjustment of status application, all at the same time. See an attorney or follow the instructions on the Getting a Family-Based Green Card and Adjustment of Status Procedures. In addition, be sure to include a copy of your parole in place approval notice from USCIS.
The denial rate for PIP is often high, so you'll want to hire an attorney who is familiar with the latest policies and local USCIS practices. And if you believe you might be inadmissible to the U.S. on any grounds other than unlawful entry or stay, you might have trouble successfully applying for a green card and should definitely consult with an experienced immigration attorney.