What do illegal immigrants need to become legal?

When Congress refused to act on immigration reform in his first term, President Obama launched the so-called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program for those illegal immigrants who arrived as children to America.  In order to defer their deportation by two years and get a work permit to be able to work during this period, they needed to file paperwork along with an application fee of $465.  While more than one million so-called DREAMers were expected to apply, during the first four months of the program only about 300,000 individuals applied.  Why so few applicants?  There were many reasons like criminal background, dropping out of high-school, inability to produce documents that were required for the application, etc., but a significant reason being cited by immigration attorneys and community activists is that they simply don't have the resources to pay the fee.  How can this be?  How can someone not have even $465 while living in a foreign country illegally?

As President Obama and Congress get ready to act on comprehensive immigration reform, undocumented immigrants have to get ready as well.  If they are able to legalize their status and cannot because they were not prepared, what a shame that would be.  So here are a few things that you can do right now, even before anything happens in Washington DC.  I will provide more precise list of things to do when the details of the law are available, but here is a checklist that you can start working on immediately:

  1. Get a valid passport and birth certificate, if you don't already have one.  DACA applicants learned it the hard way that when they approached their embassies and consulates for these documents, there was such a huge backlog that they were delayed in filing their applications.  As someone living in a foreign country, you should always have a valid passport in your possession.
  2. Prepare your immigration file.  Obviously, each one of you will have a different set of documents in it, but you might want to pull out the old passports, especially one that you used to enter the United States.  If you can find it, get the I-94.  If you had other documents with your visa, get them organized.
  3. Prepare your US paperwork in order.  Organize documents that prove where you lived and for how long.  Having rental agreements and receipts is very helpful.  If you own a home, paperwork related to mortgage is extremely useful.  If you had a bank account, put the monthly statements in the file.
  4. Organize your financial and tax information.  If you have worked in the US, put all documents in one place.  Obviously, you worked without authorization and despite this being an illegal act, chances are that the Government already knows about it or will find out when you file your application.  Again, if you used a fake Social Security card to work or even used false papers like a green card, you will have to confess to it, so it is best to have all your documentation in one place.  Similarly, while you were not authorized to work, but since you did, the IRS expects that you file a tax return.  Obviously, filing a tax return is better than not filing it, in the process, you would have admitted to working illegally.  If you used an ITIN to do your taxes for reporting income from work, you have still broken the law, but you would be in a lot more trouble if you worked legally or illegally and did not pay taxes.  In conclusion, prepare complete records of all your income and taxes in the United States, because you will not be able to adjust your status unless you are in the clear with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).  The better records you have, the easier it will be to fix your taxes, pay what you owe, and maybe even get a refund.
  5. Collect your court papers:  A lot of undocumented immigrants have had some interaction with the law.  While some got into trouble due to their unlawful presence in the country, others have committed regular crimes.  While felonies are deportable offenses and you will not be able to legalize your status at all, if you have committed other crimes and have dealt with law enforcement and courts, you will need to have all the paperwork nicely organized because you will need to provide it at the time of application.  Remember that if this paperwork is incomplete, USCIS will not take chances by approving you.  On the other hand, if the adjudicating officer is in any doubt, he will simply issue a request for evidence (RFE) or reject the application.  If you have not been keeping your paperwork related to deportation orders and other run-ins with the law, it is time to start running around to get the copies.
  6. Save, save, save.  As I said above, the last thing you want to happen is to be unable to legalize your status because you don't have the money to pay for the fees. How much will it cost?  It is very hard to estimate at this point, but my best estimate is at least $2,000 in fees alone.  Since this is going to be an extremely complicated case, you are strongly advised to hire an immigration lawyer to file your application.  Expect to pay at least $1,000 per application.  There is already a conversation that you will need to pay a fine, but the amount is unknown at this time.  And if you have not paid taxes, you will need to pay all the back taxes, along with any penalties and interest.  You see, this is quickly adding up to thousands of dollars.  DO NOT expect that the government will exempt you from paying the fee or a charity will donate it.  With millions of illegal immigrants in the country looking for help, no one would be able to do much.  It is likely that many law firms will offer financing (yes, paying all that money in installments sounds so tempting but in reality you are paying interest rates that can easily be 50% or even higher) but the interest rates are ridiculously high that it is much better to save now aggressively than to borrow it.  

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