No comprehensive immigration reform bill has been introduced in Congress, much less signed into law. But it’s never too early to start to prepare. If and when reform is enacted, millions of undocumented immigrants will finally be able to come out of the shadows. And just as the early bird gets the worm, those who apply first will (generally) be approved first. While the enactment of legislation is months away at a minimum, there are numerous steps noncitizens can now take to ensure they qualify for a path to legalization.
- Don’t get scammed
The first thing undocumented immigrants should do while awaiting comprehensive immigration reform is actually something they should not do: get scammed. The road to passage of a final bill will be filled with notarios, immigration “consultants,” and other unethical (and unsavory) characters who promise legal status in exchange for inordinate sums of money. Don’t fall for it. Unless an individual is a licensed attorney, he or she cannot provide legal representation. (Make sure to avoid any practitioners currently disciplined by the immigration courts, however.) And until President Obama signs a bill that has passed both Houses of Congress, immigration reform will not be a sure thing.
- Settle up with Uncle Sam
When politicians talk about a possible pathway to citizenship, the first thing they invariably mention is the requirement that undocumented immigrants pay any “back taxes.” While reinforcing the false notion that undocumented immigrants pay no taxes at all, such a requirement will almost certainly be included in any eventual legislation. Contrary to popular belief, a Social Security number is not required to pay taxes. Individuals can instead use an “Individual Taxpayer Identification Number,” or ITIN, which can be obtained from the Internal Revenue Service. (More information about ITINs is available here.) As always, the deadline to file taxes for last year is April 15.
- Know your criminal history
If Congress creates a pathway to citizenship, another virtual certainty is that it will exclude persons with serious or extensive criminal records. Under the leaked version of a bill being readied by the Obama administration, for example, undocumented immigrants could not legalize if they have been convicted of (a) any offense for which they served more than one year in prison, (b) three separate offenses for which they served more than 90 total days, (c) any crime rendering them inadmissible under the immigration laws, or (d) any “aggravated felony” after entering the United States.
Undocumented immigrants who have spent even one day in jail thus will likely want to consult an attorney before applying for legalization. And the first thing an attorney will want to see are records relating to prior arrests or convictions. Obtaining such records now will allow potential beneficiaries to apply sooner rather than later if and when immigration reform is signed into law. A good way to start is requesting an official criminal background check from the FBI, which costs $18.
- Get some ID
Undocumented immigrants would also be wise to obtain some form of government identification before applying for legalization. For example, noncitizens who lack a passport can generally obtain one from their embassy or consulate of their country of nationality. Despite being undocumented, noncitizens with employment authorization can generally obtain a valid Social Security card and/or driver’s license. If no other options exist, foreign nationals from countries that issue “matricula” cards might be able to use them in connection with their applications.
- Establish prior presence
An as-yet-unknown requirement is the date by which undocumented immigrants must have entered the country to be eligible for a path to citizenship. For example, the legalization proposal enacted in 1986 only applied to non-farm workers who entered the country before 1982. And the bills introduced in 2006 and 2007 also contained cut-off dates stretching a number of years back.
Fortunately, it appears that any cut-off requirement will be more lenient this time around. For example, under the leaked version of the bill being readied by the Obama administration, noncitizens would have to be in the country on the date of introduction in order to qualify. And the framework released by the “Gang of 8” in the Senate contains no mention of a cut-off date, suggesting that it too would be open to recent arrivals.
Nonetheless, potential beneficiaries would still be wise to start collecting evidence now that establishes their prior presence in the country—school records, medical records, bank statements, utility bills, pay stubs, tax returns, etc.—to satisfy whatever cutoff date the final bill includes.
- Talk to a trusted attorney
Not every undocumented immigrant will need an attorney to take advantage of a pathway to citizenship. But many will. And it can be hard to know whether one needs to hire an attorney unless one talks to an attorney. In fact, as occurred in many consultations involving prospective DACA applicants, one might discover that they were already eligible for legal status through another route.