If you add up all the people with pending asylum cases at the Asylum Offices, Immigration Courts, and Board of Immigration Appeals, there are over one million souls waiting in limbo. Many will be waiting for years. During that time, some applicants will inevitably become eligible to obtain legal status in the U.S. through other means. Here, I want to discuss the possibilities for a green card for those with a pending asylum case.

We'll start with the easiest and most common path to a Green Card for asylum seekers already in the country: Marriage to a United States citizen. In a future post, I will cover other ways asylum seekers might obtain residency in the U.S., such as marriage to a lawful permanent resident, sponsorship by an employer, and the Visa Lottery.

There are plenty of good-looking U.S. citizens just waiting to marry you!

As a preliminary matter, I should say that the rules discussed here apply not only to spouses of U.S. citizens, but also to other "immediate relatives" of U.S. citizens. Immediate relatives are (1) spouses, (2) unmarried children of U.S. citizens where the child is under 21 years old, and (3) parents of U.S. citizens where the U.S. citizen child is over 21 years old.

Second, I should note that under U.S. immigration law, same-sex marriage is allowed, and such couples are treated the same as heterosexual couples for purposes of immigration.

With that out of the way, let's talk about obtaining a Green Card by marrying a U.S. citizen. Not everyone who marries a citizen is eligible to obtain a Green Card, but most people are. If you entered the country lawfully (usually with a visa), you have not been ordered deported, and you have no serious criminal issues, you are most likely eligible to adjust status (i.e., obtain your Green Card without leaving the U.S.) based on the marriage. Check with a lawyer to be sure you are eligible, as there is no sense starting the processing (and paying a lot of money), if you are not legally able to get your Green Card.

Cases at the Asylum Office
: The process of applying for a Green Card varies depending on whether you have a case pending with the Asylum Office or the Immigration Court. Normally, for Asylum Office cases, we file the I-130 (petition for alien relative), the I-485 (application for a Green Card), and accompanying forms and evidence with USCIS. This includes filing for a work permit and Advance Parole, which will allow you to work and travel while the Green Card application is pending (when you pay for the I-485, the fee includes these applications as well).

If you are lucky, USCIS will process the case normally and you will get a Green Card. If the marriage is less than two years old, you will receive a Conditional Permanent Resident card that is valid for two years. Prior to the card’s expiration, you will need to file another form to obtain the lawful permanent resident card. If the marriage is more than two years old, you should receive the lawful permanent resident card, which is valid for 10 years. Once you have the temporary or permanent Green Card, you can inform the Asylum Office and close your case.

Some Green Card applicants are not so lucky, and their cases get delayed. If that happens, we contact the Asylum Office and tell them about the pending Green Card. In some mysterious way, they sometimes help move things along (it may be that the Asylum Office has a file that USCIS needs to adjudicate the marriage case). If that doesn’t work, we can try withdrawing the asylum case to pursue only the Green Card case, but at least in my opinion, it is preferable to keep the asylum case alive until you have the Green Card in hand.

Cases in Immigration Court
: The process is different for people in Court (or before the BIA). For one thing, you don’t normally file the I-130 and the I-485 together. Instead, the U.S. citizen spouse files the I-130 petition alone. The purpose of this form is to get USCIS to “approve” the bona fides of the marriage (in other words, to agree that the marriage is true).

In contrast to I-130 cases where the alien is not in Immigration Court, the burden of proof is higher, meaning you need to submit stronger evidence that the marriage is real. Technically, you are asking for a bona fide marriage exemption (USCIS suspects that people in Court may get married in order to avoid deportation, and so such cases are flagged for extra attention). In practice, while USCIS often asks for a formal declaration from the couple that the marriage is bona fide, the standard of evidence is not discernibly different than in “regular” I-130 marriage cases.

Once the I-130 is pending, we typically inform the Court and give them a copy of the I-130, the supporting evidence, and the I-130 receipt. Depending on the stage of the case, we often ask the Immigration Judge for a continuance, so that USCIS has time to process the I-130 petition. If there is a processing delay from USCIS, we sometimes contact the DHS attorney and ask whether they can help facilitate the I-130, which they usually agree to do. This can sometimes magically move things along at USCIS.

Once the I-130 is approved, we inform the Court and can then try one of two paths to get the Green Card. Either we ask the Judge to terminate proceedings so the person can “adjust status” (i.e., obtain a Green Card) with USCIS, or we ask the Immigration Judge to grant the Green Card in court. Often, the Immigration Judge will make this decision for you. But if you have a choice, you should know that there are advantages and disadvantages to each approach.

If you decide to go with USCIS, which is probably the more common choice, the first step is to get the Judge to terminate proceedings (be sure that you get an order “terminating” proceedings, not an order to “administratively close” proceedings, which keeps jurisdiction with the Judge and blocks you from obtaining a Green Card from USCIS). When we tried this in the past, the DHS attorneys and the judges were amenable to termination, as that makes life easier for them. However, in a recent case, the DHS attorney would not agree to terminate proceedings until we completed the I-485 and provided proof that we paid the fee. The problem is, the fee has to be paid in a particular way for cases in Immigration Court. We paid the fee and received the receipt. After that, the case was terminated. We then tried to use the fee receipt to “pay” for the I-485. In the past, USCIS has accepted the fee receipt in lieu of payment, but this time, they refused, and so my client had to pay the fee a second time ($1,225!). Next time I have a case like this, I will ask that proceedings be terminated without the fee receipt, which will hopefully avoid the problem of paying double fees.

Once the case is terminated, the applicant can adjust status with USCIS. It is pretty common to see delays in such cases, where the person was previously in removal proceedings. But ultimately, everyone who does this seems to end up with a Green Card, and it is easy to get a work permit and travel document (Advance Parole) while the case is pending with USCIS.

Alternatively, you can ask the Judge to schedule an Individual Hearing to approve the Green Card in court. This can be faster (depending on the Judge’s schedule), and should avoid the problem of double fees, but it is more difficult to get a work permit while you are waiting (you can try to use the I-485 fee receipt to “pay” for the EAD, but as we found out, that does not always work). Also, you cannot travel outside the U.S. until the Green Card is granted (if a person in Immigration Court leaves the U.S., he has effectively deported himself). Once the Judge approves the Green Card, you will need to make an Info Pass appointment to obtain the physical card.

Some Exceptions:
Not everyone who enters the country illegally, or who has a criminal conviction or a deportation order, is ineligible to get a Green Card through marriage to a U.S. citizen. However, if you fall into one of these categories, you would want to talk to a lawyer about your eligibility.

For people who entered illegally, there is a law called INA 245(i) that allows certain people to pay a fine and obtain their Green Card despite the unlawful entry. To qualify, you would have had to be present in the U.S. since at least December 20, 2000 and have had a family member or employer file an immigrant petition or labor certification for you (or possibly a parent) prior to April 30, 2001. There are other requirements too, and so you would want to discuss the specifics of your case with a lawyer. Also, potentially you can leave the U.S. with a provisional waiver and obtain your Green Card overseas. This can also be problematic, especially for asylum seekers who cannot go to the U.S. embassy in their home country, and so you would want to check with a lawyer before trying this option.

For people with a criminal conviction, there are possible “waivers” available. A waiver is basically a form (usually with a steep fee) that asks the government to forgive your crime and allows you to obtain your Green Card. Many waivers require that you have citizen or resident relatives (parent, child or spouse) in the U.S. and that the relative(s) show that they would suffer some type of hardship if you were deported. Again, you would want to talk to a lawyer about this.

People with a deportation order, or some other type of immigration issue (such as the J-1 two-year home residency requirement) might also be eligible to adjust status. But especially for people with a deportation order, it is very important to talk to a lawyer. Part of the Green Card process involves an interview with USCIS, and there have been many recent examples of people with deportation orders being detained by ICE at their I-130 interviews. A lawyer can’t stop you from being detained, but she can evaluate the likelihood of a problem, and help you weigh that risk against the possibility of a successful outcome.

For most asylum seekers who marry a U.S. citizen, the likelihood of obtaining a Green Card is quite high. However, the process can be bureaucratically challenging. For all these reasons, if you can afford a lawyer to get you through the system, that is probably a good idea.

In a future post, I will discuss some other paths to residency for asylum seekers, Stay tuned.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.