What should I know about immigration status?

Authored By: GeorgiaLegalAid.org
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Immigration status

Immigration status in the United States


What does immigration status mean in the United States?

Every person living in the United States has an immigration status. Immigration status refers to the legal right of a person to live and work in the United States. Different immigration statuses carry different rights within the United States. 


There are four general categories of immigration status:

  • U.S. Citizen,

  • Resident,

  • Non-immigrant, and 

  • Undocumented. 

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Who are U.S. citizens?

A U.S. citizen is a person who:

  • Was born in the United States, 

  • Was born outside the United States to U.S. citizens, or 

  • Was naturalized. A naturalized citizen is a person born in another country who spent 3-5 years as a permanent resident of the U.S. and went through the process to become a full citizen of the United States. 


Who can apply for naturalization?

In general, to apply for naturalization you must:

  • Be at least 18 years of age at the time you file the application;

  • Have been a lawful permanent resident for the past three or five years (depending on which naturalization category you are applying under);

  • Have continuous residence and physical presence in the United States;

  • Be able to read, write, and speak basic English;

  • Demonstrate good moral character;

  • Demonstrate a knowledge and understanding of U.S. history and government;

  • Demonstrate a loyalty to the principles of the U.S. Constitution; and

  • Be willing to take the Oath of Allegiance.


What are a U.S. citizen’s rights and responsibilities?

As a U.S. citizen you:

  • Cannot be deported, unless you got your citizenship through fraud,

  • Are protected by all the laws of the United States, your state, and local jurisdiction,

  • Can travel with a U.S. passport,

  • Get federal benefits only available to U.S. citizens,

  • Can sponsor relatives for green cards,

  • Your children are automatically U.S. citizens,

  • Can vote in U.S., state and local elections,

  • Can run for elected office and apply for government jobs. 


As a U.S. citizen you are responsible for:

  • Filing U.S. income tax returns,

  • Registering with the Selective Service if you are a male between 18-26 years old,

  • Serving on jury duty if you are selected. 


Can I lose my U.S. citizenship?

It is very rare, but U.S. citizens can lose their citizenship through:

  • Denaturalization. People who get their citizenship through naturalization can lose their status only if they got their citizenship:

    • Illegally, or

    • By concealing or misrepresenting a material fact.

  • Expatriation. U.S. citizens can voluntarily renounce, or give up, their citizenship.


When confronted with any citizenship or immigration those issue it is imperative that you consult an immigration attorney immediately.

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What are lawful permanent resident and conditional permanent resident statuses in the U.S.?

Permanent residents are also known as Green Card holders. There are two types of permanent residents:

  • Conditional permanent residents. A Conditional Green Card is valid for 2 years. In that time, the holder must meet certain requirements and apply to have their conditions removed. If they do, they will become a lawful permanent resident.

  • Lawful permanent residents. A Green Card allows you to live and work permanently in the United States. It does not have to be renewed once it is issued. 


There are a variety of ways you might be eligible to get a Green Card, if you:

  • Are the family member or fiance of a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident,

  • Have a job offer in the U.S. and seek permanent residence based on your employment,

  • Qualify as a “special immigrant.” The special immigrant categories are:

    • Religious workers,

    • Juveniles who needs protection from their parent,

    • Certain Afghanistan or Iraqi nationals who worked for the U.S. government or the International Security Assistance Force,

    • International broadcasters, or

    • Retired officer or employees of eligible international organizations or NATO.

  • Were granted asylum or refugee status at least 1 year ago,

  • Are a human trafficking victim and have a T nonimmigrant visa,

  • Are a crime victim and have a U nonimmigrant visa,

  • Have been abused by your spouse, parent or adult child who is a:

    • U.S. Citizen or 

    • Lawful Permanent Resident, 

  • Your child is being abused by their parent, who is a: 

    • U.S. Citizen or

    • Lawful Permanent Resident,

  • Have been present in the United States since Jan 1. 1972, or 

  • Fit one of the other narrow Green Card categories, including:

    • Cuban natives,

    • Winners of the diversity lottery, or 

    • American Indians born in Canada. 


What are the rights and responsibilities of a permanent resident?

As a permanent resident, you have the right to:

  • Live permanently in the United States, unless you do something that would make you removable under immigration law. 

    • A permanent resident may still be deported to their home country.

  • Work in the United States. 

    • There are some government jobs that are limited to only U.S. citizens.

  • To be protected by all the laws of the United States, your state, and local jurisdiction.

  • After 3-5 years, you can apply for U.S. citizenship.


As a permanent resident, your responsibilities include:

  • Following the laws of the United States and Georgia,

  • Filing income taxes every year, and

  • Registering with the Selective Service if you are a male between 18-26 years old.

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What are non-immigrant statuses?

Non-immigrants are people who are in the country legally, but for a limited time. Non-immigrants include:

  • People on vacation,

  • Students,

  • Fiancees, 

  • Temporary workers, and 

  • People granted temporary protection. This includes:

    • Victims of human trafficking who are granted T visas, and

    • Crime victims or witnesses who are granted U visas.


Except for people on vacation from certain countries, non-immigrants must have a visa that allows them to live in the United States. The length of their stay will be stated in their visa. 


What are the rights and responsibilities of non-immigrants? 

Each non-immigrant status comes with its own set of rights and responsibilities. Regardless of your status, you have certain rights including the right to be protected under the laws of the United States.


You are responsible for leaving the country when your visa expires. If you remain in the U.S. after your visa expires, you will now be in the country illegally. 

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Who is undocumented in the United States?

People who are in the U.S. without permission are often called undocumented immigrants. Sometimes people are undocumented because they:

  • Entered the U.S. illegally, or

  • Overstayed a temporary visa.


Undocumented immigrants might be deported at any time. 


What are the rights and responsibilities of undocumented immigrants?

People who are undocumented do not:

  • Have access to public benefits, 

  • Have permission to live in the U.S., and 

  • Have legal authority to work in the U.S. 


If you are undocumented, you still have rights in the United States. Undocumented immigrants have the protections of the U.S. Constitution. These rights include:

  • Right to due process,

  • Right to a lawyer in criminal proceedings, 

  • Right for your child to have access to free public education, and 

  • Right against unreasonable search and seizure.

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How do I change my immigration status?

Changing, or adjusting, your immigration status is complicated and can have serious consequences. You may want to consult an immigration attorney to guide you through the process. 


To learn more about adjusting your status:

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Last Review and Update: Dec 10, 2020
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