FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (KNWA) — The term “illegal immigrant” is often used toward non-citizens, but many non-citizens are in the country legally and fall into different tiers of lawful residency.
“‘Illegals’ is a really offensive way of saying a person who is undocumented,” said Ellen Weintraut, an immigration attorney with Northwest Immigration Law, PLLC.
Non-citizens who are not legal residents are frequently referred to as illegal immigrants, but “illegal immigrant” is not a legal term; “undocumented immigrant” is the proper classification, according to Nathan Bogart, an immigration attorney with Bogart Immigration, PLLC.
The United States’ foreign-born population climbed to a record 44.4 million residents in 2017. Most immigrants, 77 percent precisely, are in the country legally, according to the Pew Research Center.
Non-citizens fall into multiple tiers of lawful residency, Bogart said.
“Immigrant” is the top tier of lawful non-citizen status. Immigrants are people living in the United States as lawful permanent residents. Such people are known as Green Card holders, according to Bogart.
“Legally speaking, a person isn’t considered an immigrant unless they’re here with a Green Card,” Bogart said. “Once you’ve been an immigrant for three to five years, you can apply for citizenship.”
The second tier of lawful non-citizens are residents who obtained a nonimmigrant visa. Such people are here legally, but in a temporary status for a specific purpose, Bogart said.
“They might be here as a tourist, as a temporary worker or a fiance who is planning on marrying a U.S. citizen,” Bogart said. “[They’re] here for a specific purpose and a specific purpose only.”
The length of time a nonimmigrant can be in the country as a temporary worker can vary wildly depending on the kind of visa she has.
“Some are allowed to be here for years and some are allowed to be here for days or months,” Bogart said.
A student visa is a type of nonimmigrant visa.
“It’s for someone who is here studying, and it is for however long they’re here to study,” Bogart said. “It depends on the individuals visa, the type of visa they have and the specific permission the government has given them to be here.”
Nonimmigrants can become Green Card-carrying permanent residents if a family member who is a citizen, such as a spouse, or employer petitions them to become a resident. This process is done through United States Citizenship and Immigration Service.
“There’s no way for a nonimmigrant to apply for citizenship,” Bogart said. “It has to be tied to a petitioner.”
Nonimmigrants who obtain permanent resident status can apply for citizenship after three to five years of being a permanent resident.
The third tier of lawful residents are people with DACA status.
DACA stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival. It’s a status that’s temporary in nature, but can be renewed every two years, Bogart said.
DACA status is available to people who were under age 31 in June 15, 2012, when the program was announced. Also, they must have entered the U.S. prior to June 15, 2007, Bogart said.
“That excludes a large number of people who might be minors today and were brought here by their parents or other family members,” Bogart said. “If you are 8 years old or any age and came here today, you would not qualify for DACA.”
For a person to obtain DACA status, a family member who is a citizen or employer has to petition them through Immigration Service.
DACA residents are in a limbo status that allows them to be in the United States, obtain a work permit and be free from fear of deportation until they renew their temporary status, according to Bogart.
But renewal isn’t guaranteed.
“The government puts them through a background check to make sure they haven’t done anything to disqualify them for renewal,” Bogart said.
The fourth tier of lawful residents are people with temporary protected status.
Temporary protected status is a temporary immigration status given to nationals of certain countries deemed unsafe for them to be deported back to, according to the American Immigration Council.
“TPS has been a lifeline to hundreds of thousands of individuals already in the United States when problems in a home country make their departure or deportation untenable,” the American Immigration Council website states.
The Executive Branch designates citizens of certain countries as having temporary protected status.
“The Executive Branch is trying to terminate TPS for several countries, and that includes El Salvador. That’s in litigation right now,” Bogart said.
President Donald Trump’s administration’s effort to terminate temporary protected status for people from El Salvador has been met with controversy, Bogart said.
“They’re getting a lot of push back because a lot of these people have been here for 20 years and they have homes, they have children, they have jobs, they pay taxes and they contribute to society,” Bogart said.
A person with temporary protected status can gain permanent residency by being petitioned by a family member who is a U.S. citizen or employer, Bogart said.