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While there are many ways for a person without American citizenship or nationality to be authorized to live and even work in the United States, only one — possession of a green card, which confers lawful permanent residency — allows them to then become a naturalized citizen. Here’s an explanation of authorized residents, their status, and their ability to receive a green card.

Does DACA include a path to citizenship?

Not right now. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) offers limited protection against deportation for unauthorized immigrants brought across the border as minors. DACA recipients, otherwise known as “Dreamers,” must meet certain age and educational or military service requirements and cannot possess a significant criminal record. The program also only applies to those who arrived in the US before June 2007. However, DACA protection is not the same as legal status, and Dreamers cannot obtain green cards, even via employee or family sponsorship, without first leaving the country and applying from abroad with other foreign candidates. Additionally, depending on the length of time they spent in the US as an unauthorized immigrant before receiving DACA status, they could then be barred from returning for a period of three or 10 years unless granted a waiver.

Although there have been multiple attempts to change the DACA program since its start in 2012, most have failed. Several court cases and a preliminary injunction prevented the implementation of an expansion that President Obama attempted in 2014, which would have increased the length of time that DACA participants receive protection before needing to renew their status from two years to three, as well as extended eligibility to unauthorized minors who arrived more recently. The Trump administration formally rescinded the attempted expansion in 2017 and later announced that it would roll back the entire DACA program. More court cases and another preliminary injunction blocked the latter decision, and the Supreme Court determined in June 2020 that the attempt to end DACA had been invalid because of a failure to follow procedure.

Starting in July, the Trump administration announced that no new requests for DACA status will be processed, and current participants will now renew their status for a period of only one year at a time.

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As of March 2020, there were 643,560 active DACA recipients living in the country, according to US Citizenship and Immigration Services. Over 80.4% of them were born in Mexico.

Read more coverage about DACA recipients here.

What about refugees, asylees, and victims of trafficking or crime?

People who enter the US as refugees are automatically allowed to work and must apply for a green card after one year. Asylees may also work and are able — but do not need — to apply for green card status after one year. People who are victims of human trafficking or of certain crimes and aid law enforcement can obtain four-year visas that make them eligible for work authorization. They can apply for a green card after being in the country for three years.

According to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the US approved entry for 29,916 refugees in 2019, 43.2% of whom were children under 17. At 43.3%, the the Democratic Republic of the Congo accounted for the largest share of refugees, followed by Burma at 16.5% and Ukraine at 14.9%. Refugee admissions were capped at 30,000 that year. President Trump announced that the limit on refugee admissions would decrease to 18,000 for 2020 — down 83.6% from where President Obama set it at 110,000 for 2017.

In 2019, the US also granted asylum to an additional 46,508 people. Up to 16.1% of the asylees were from China, followed by Venezuela at 14.7%, El Salvador at 6.9%, and Guatemala at 5.6%.

In 2019, the government approved 991 visas for trafficking victims and their families and 17,856 visas for other crime victims and their families.

Refugee arrivals by nationality 2017 2018 2019
Total 53,691 22,405 29,916
Democratic Republic of the Congo 9,377 7,878 12,958
Burma 5,078 3,555 4,932
Ukraine 4,264 2,635 4,451
Eritrea 1,917 1,269 1,757
Afghanistan 1,311 805 1,198
Syria 6,557 62 563
Iraq 6,886 140 465
Sudan 980 76 382
El Salvador 1,124 725 311
Colombia 233 128 298
All other countries or unknown 15,964 5,132 2,601

Do people with H-1B visas, student visas, and other temporary visas have a path to citizenship?

It depends. There are a range of nonimmigrant visas that allow people to live and work in the US for several years at a time, with the expectation that they will eventually leave. Because intent to depart, as shown through a foreign residence or return ticket, is usually a precondition for approval, most of these visas do not allow holders to simultaneously apply for a green card. Instead, they must leave the US and apply while outside the country. But there are certain nonimmigrant visas that do not require demonstrated intent to leave.

Immigration law refers to these as dual intent visas, because they allow a person to arrive with either the eventual plan of leaving or of receiving a green card. H-1B visas fall in this category, as do L-1A and L-1B visas and certain others. Unlike refugee or human trafficking and crime victim visas, these visas do not offer a direct path to lawful permanent residency — the person still needs to obtain employer or family sponsorship to qualify for a green card. However, it is possible to get a green card while living in the US on such a visa. Meanwhile, F-1 visas for international students are not dual intent, meaning that application for a green card would be a violation of status and could lead to penalties. Generally, this means that graduated students must return to their home countries or qualify for an employment-based temporary visa like an H-1B before seeking a green card.

The federal Violence Against Women Act also allows victims of battery or extreme cruelty by citizen or green card holding spouses or parents — or by a child with citizenship — to apply for a green card from their temporary visa without family sponsorship.

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DHS estimates there were 2.3 million nonimmigrant workers, students, exchange visitors, and other non-tourists living in the US in 2016, the most recent year for which data is available. India was the most common country of citizenship, at 25% of the nonimmigrant population. Chinese citizens made up 15%, Mexican citizens 7%, and Canadian citizens 6%.

What does it mean to have a green card?

Regular lawful permanent residents can continue to live and work in the US for an indefinite period, although they must renew their green cards every 10 years. They are protected by and must follow all federal, state, and local laws. In addition to paying taxes, they can also be drafted for military service. However, they cannot vote.

That said, green card holders can obtain the right to vote by applying for naturalization as US citizens — which is an option for those who have been a permanent resident for at least five years, or for three years in addition to being married to a US citizen. Those who serve in the military are eligible for naturalization with no requirement for how long they have lived in the country. This process adjusts their status from green card holder to full citizenship.

According to DHS, the annual number of new green card holders has increased since 1945, from an average of 250,000 in the 1950s to over 1 million since 1999. At least 3.6 million foreign residents were on the waitlist for green cards in November 2019.

In 2018, 48% of new green cards went to new arrivals, while the rest were status adjustments for people already in the US. Immediate relatives of US citizens and other family-sponsored cases constituted 63.4% of the approvals. Employer sponsorship was behind 12.6% of approvals, and refugees and asylees made up 17%. green cards for victims of human trafficking or other crimes made up 1.5%. The Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, which uses a lottery process to award immigrant status to applicants from countries with low rates of immigration to the US, accounted for 4.1% of green card approvals.

Mexico was the most common home country for new green card recipients in 2018 with 14.8% of approvals. Cuban immigrants made up 7%, followed by Chinese immigrants at 5.9%, Indian immigrants at 5.2%, and Dominican immigrants at 5.2%.

DHS estimates that the total lawful permanent resident population was 13.6 million in January 2019.

Read more coverage about the naturalization process and what it involves.

What might change in the election?

Depending on the outcome of the coming presidential election, the people who are eligible for a path to citizenship could change — with candidate Joe Biden proposing not only reform within the current system but also creating a path to citizenship for all unauthorized immigrants in the US, a group estimated at 12 million in 2015, the most recent data available from DHS.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has suggested several possible changes. In 2018, he proposed removing birthright citizenship, before unveiling an immigration reform plan later that year that included $25 billion for the border wall, the elimination of the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, and a 10-12 year path to citizenship for all current and eligible DACA participants. In 2019, he released another plan that would increase merit-based legal immigration. Additionally, President Trump has recently suspended issuance of several nonimmigrant visas through at least the end of the 2020, citing economic strain and lack of available jobs due to the pandemic.

Read more about the candidates and their stances on immigration at the Voter Center and get the facts every week by signing up for our newsletter.

Estimates of the Lawful Permanent Resident Population in the United States
Nonimmigrants Residing in the United States
Immigration and Citizenship Data