Is Any Amnesty for Undocumented Immigrants Available Now?

There are no current bills or immigration reforms being considered by U.S. Congress that would allow undocumented foreign citizens to apply for U.S. permanent residence. Learn about the alternatives in the meantime.

By , J.D., University of Washington School of Law

Very occasionally, the U.S. Congress will authorize an "amnesty" for undocumented immigrants (also called illegal aliens)—that is, a pardon for unlawful status and a path to lawful permanent residence (a green card).

Such an amnesty program was offered in the late 1980s, for example. The requirements included that applicants prove they had been living or working in the U.S. for a certain length of time and had good moral character. They first received temporary status, then, after 18 months, could become eligible for green cards, provided they demonstrated that they could speak English.

In recent years, U.S. lawmakers have proposed various bills offering amnesty-like paths to a green card, but couldn't agree on any. In the meantime, some existing laws might allow something similar in rare cases, but not a true, mass amnesty.

Cancellation of Removal Offers a Path to a Green Card to Undocumented Immigrants in Deportation Proceedings

A remedy called Non-LPR Cancellation of Removal allows non-citizens who have already been placed in removal (deportation) proceedings to ask the immigration court judge to grant a green card. There are strict eligibility requirements, however, including that:

  • they have been living ("continuously physically present") in the U.S. for at least ten years
  • their deportation from the U.S. would cause "exceptional and extremely unusual hardship" to qualifying relatives who are U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents (LPRs),
  • they have "good moral character," and
  • they have not been convicted of certain crimes or violated certain laws.

This remedy cannot be applied for affirmatively, however. One must be in immigration court proceedings first, presumably either after an arrest by U.S. immigration authorities or denial of some other form of immigration application and a referral to immigration court.

DACA Offers Some Undocumented Immigrants a Temporary Right to Live and Work in the U.S.

There is a program temporarily in place providing for the deferred deportation of certain people who came to the U.S. as children and meet several guidelines (known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA). This is not a law, but an Executive Order implemented by President Barack Obama. Eligible applicants receive a U.S. work permit.

The Trump Administration attempted to terminate this program, and nearly succeeded. After multiple lawsuits, the situation as of early 2024 is that one cannot submit a new DACA application. Renewals, however, remain an option for people already holding DACA.

For procedural help if and when DACA becomes available again, see Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA): Application Process.

Get Legal Help If You Hear of Any Amnesty Possibilities

The chances of an upcoming amnesty or path to a green card depend on the U.S. Congress, but nothing is on the horizon as of early 2024. If anything, Congress has been focused on making life more difficult for undocumented immigrants, as have some states such as Florida and Texas. (See, for example, Is It Illegal to Transport an Undocumented Immigrant Within the U.S.?.) Keep your eyes on the news for changes.

Beware of the many scammers or fake lawyers who urge immigrants to pay to submit an application during a time when no such application exists. Whenever a new bill comes up in Congress, and its opponents claim (often inappropriately) that it is an amnesty, the scammers tend to seize the opportunity to start collecting money and filling out fake "applications" on immigrants behalf.

If you hear news of an amnesty, be sure to choose a highly qualified immigration attorney to evaluate your situation and help you apply. Or, the attorney might be able to identify another immigration benefit or remedy you could apply for.

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