Humanities › Issues The Path to Legalization for Illegal Immigrants Legalization for illegal immigrants Share Flipboard Email Print John Moore/Getty Images Issues Immigration Immigration Politics Inmigración en Español The U. S. Government U.S. Foreign Policy U.S. Liberal Politics U.S. Conservative Politics Women's Issues Civil Liberties The Middle East Terrorism Race Relations Crime & Punishment Animal Rights Canadian Government View More By Jennifer McFadyen Immigration Expert Jennifer McFadyen is a freelance writer specializing in immigration-related issues, news, and laws. our editorial process Jennifer McFadyen Updated February 08, 2019 Should the United States provide a path to legalization for illegal immigrants? The issue has been at the forefront of American politics for years, and the debate shows no signs of abating. What does a nation do with the millions of people residing in its country illegally? History of Immigrating to the US Illegal immigrants, often referred to as illegal aliens, are defined by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 as people who are not citizens or nationals of the United States. They are foreign nationals who come to the United States without following the legal immigration process to enter and remain in the country; in other words, anyone born in a country other than the United States to parents who are not United States citizens. The reasons for immigrating vary, but generally, people are looking for better opportunities and a higher quality of life than they would have in their native countries. Illegal immigrants do not have the proper legal documentation to be in the country, or they have overstayed their time allotted, perhaps on a tourist or student visa. They cannot vote, and they cannot receive social services from federally funded programs or social security benefits; they cannot hold United States passports. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 provided amnesty to 2.7 illegal immigrants already in the United States and established sanctions for employers who knowingly hired illegal aliens. Additional laws were passed in the 1990s to help curb the growing number of illegal aliens, but they were largely ineffective. Another bill for immigration reform was introduced in 2007 but ultimately failed. It would have provided legal status to approximately 12 million illegal immigrants. President Donald Trump has gone back and forth on the immigration issue, going so far as to offer a merit-based legal immigration system. Nevertheless, Trump says he is intent on restoring "integrity and the rule of law to our borders," and prompted the longest government shutdown to date (34 days) with his demand of funding for a southern border wall. A Path Toward Legalization The path toward becoming a legal US citizen is called naturalization; this process is overseen by the US Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Service (BCIS). There are four paths to legal status for undocumented, or illegal, immigrants. Path 1: Green Card The first path to becoming a legal citizen is to obtain a Green Card by marrying a US citizen or a lawful permanent resident. But, according to Citizenpath, if the "foreign spouse and children or stepchildren" entered the United States "without inspection and remained in the United States, they must leave the country and conclude their immigration process through US consulates abroad" to obtain the green card. More importantly, says Citizenpath, "If the immigrating spouse and/or children over 18 years of age resided in the United States unlawfully for at least 180 days (6 months) but less than one year, or they remained more than one year, they could then be automatically barred from re-entry to the United States for 3-10 years respectively once they leave the United States." In some cases, these immigrants can apply for a waiver if they can prove "extreme and unusual hardship." Path 2: DREAMers The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals is a program established in 2012 to protect illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children. Donald Trump's administration in 2017 threatened to undo the act but has yet to do so. The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act was first introduced in 2001 as bipartisan legislation, and its main provision was to provide permanent resident status upon completion of two years of college or service in the military. The American Immigration Council states that with the country currently gripped by political polarization, bipartisan support for the DREAM Act has waned. In turn, "more narrow proposals have circulated that either restrict eligibility for permanent residency to a smaller group of young people or offer no dedicated path to permanent residency (and, eventually, US citizenship)." Path 3: Asylum Citizenpath says that asylum is available to illegal immigrants who have "suffered persecution in his or her home country or who has a well-founded fear of persecution if he or she were to return to that country." Persecution must be based on one of the following five groups: race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion. Also according to Citizenpath, requirements for eligibility include the following: You must be present in the United States (by legal or illegally entry); you are unable or unwilling to return to your home country due to past persecution or have a well-founded fear of future persecution if you return; the reason for persecution is related to one of five things: race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion; and you are not involved with an activity that would bar you from asylum. Path 4: U Visas The U Visa — a non-immigrant visa — is reserved for crime victims who have assisted law enforcement. Citizenpath says U Visa holders "have legal status in the United States, receive employment authorization (work permit) and even a possible path to citizenship." The U Visa was created by the US Congress in October 2000 by the passage of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act. To qualify, an illegal immigrant must have suffered substantial physical or mental abuse as a result of having been a victim of a qualifying criminal activity; must have information concerning that criminal activity; must have been helpful, is being helpful or is likely to be helpful in the investigation or prosecution of the crime; and the criminal activity must have violated US laws.