Undocumented Immigrants in the U.S.: How to Prepare for Immigration Reform

Start gathering your documents and planning ahead.

Although the much-discussed plans for U.S. immigration reform are nowhere near final -- as described in “What’s in the Senate Immigration Reform Proposal for Undocumented Immigrants“ -- any noncitizen currently in the U.S. without status should nevertheless look ahead and start planning for the most likely possibilities. This article will describe some important steps to take.

Don’t Leave the United States

Anyone hoping for legal status according to the proposed bill will have to be in the U.S. to apply, and in many cases have to prove continuous physical presence in the U.S. dating back to well before the bill is signed. Any departures could risk troubles reentering or proving presence here.

Keep Your Eyes on the News and Nolo’s Website

Once this law is finalized, there will be strict deadlines to submit the relevant application. We can expect a rush to attorneys and nonprofit organizations, all of which will become very busy and possibly unable to help people who didn’t make appointments long in advance. Prospective applicants who wait until the last minute to prepare their applications may miss the deadline and therefore their opportunity to become legal residents of the United States.

Set Money Aside for Fees

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is being authorized to charge application fees for these new legal statuses. If other immigration applications are any guide, you can expect to pay a few hundred dollars per application. The Senate bill also charges every blue card applicant over the age of 21 a $100 penalty fee; and every provisional immigrant (other than DREAM Act applicants) a $500 penalty fee.

Then there are lawyers’ fees, which are likely to start at around $1,000, depending on the amount of work involved. You will likely have the best chance of success if you hire an attorney to help with your application for U.S. status, especially because the law will be new, which means that procedures and interpretations may be changing over time.

Be Extra Careful to Obey the Law

Your eligibility for any benefits under the new immigration law can easily be destroyed if you have a criminal record (the immigration authorities will check your fingerprints), have committed immigration fraud, vote unlawfully in a U.S. election, haven’t paid your taxes, or are otherwise found “inadmissible” to the United States. The unpaid taxes should be fixable (assuming you’re willing to pay penalties). The rest may not be.

Talk to an attorney if you’ve already got a problematic record, do your best to learn the laws of the U.S., and stay away from likely trouble.

Gather Documents Showing Presence and Work in the U.S.

This law will reward people who never get around to throwing anything away! For starters, anyone applying based on DREAM Act eligibility will need to create a list of every secondary school attended. Gathering work records will be important for all applicants, as well.

For purposes of proving physical presence in the U.S., you will need to collect a variety of documents, such as school, medical, and bank records, affidavits from people in authority, memberships, dated photos showing you at locations in the United States, insurance policies, vehicle registrations, signed leases, utility bills, birth certificates of children born in the U.S., and receipts for purchases that list the date, business location, and your name.

This process will be familiar to DACA applicants, who have come up with more ways to prove their U.S. presence than anyone not familiar with modern technology might have ever imagined; see “DACA Applicants Getting Creative With Proving Presence in the U.S.

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