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Illegal Immigration and a Path to Citizenship


The United States remains the most preferred destination for migrants from all over the world. According to Garcia (2019), in 2016 alone, the country admitted 1.18 million legal immigrants. About the same population made an entry into the country through illegal means during the same period, especially through expired visas and through the porous borders of the country. Illegal immigration has remained one of the biggest challenges in the country. Every regime often promises to fight the problem but little success has been achieved. Although illegal immigration is an undesirable practice that the country will continue to fight, some of these illegal immigrants play a critical role in the country’s economic growth. They take jobs in the agricultural and industrial sectors that locals often avoid. As such, it is not only important to treat them humanely but also offer them a path to citizenship, specifically those law-abiding individuals who are actively engaged in the country’s economic growth.

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The United States has put in place mechanisms to ensure that people, especially individuals with desirable skills and investors, can legally migrate to the country to participate in its socio-economic and political growth. However, some people tend to use illegal means to make an entry into the country. As shown in figure 1 below, 69.2% of immigrants in the country are permanent immigrants (naturalized citizens and legal permanent residents). Another 4.5% are temporary and discretionary legal residents, mostly with temporary visas. The remaining 26.3%, which is slightly more than a quarter of the total immigrants’ population, are undocumented individuals. With the total population of immigrants estimated to be over 45 million people, it means that the country has more than 11 million undocumented immigrants (Bishop, 2019). This poses a serious challenge because the government cannot effectively plan for this population. It also becomes difficult to trace these individuals when they are involved in crime.

Composition of Immigrants in the US 
Figure 1. Composition of Immigrants in the US 

Reasons Why People Overstay Their Visa

One of the most common ways in which people become illegal immigrants in the US is cases where they overstay their visas. The majority of them come on a student visa or B-2(tourism, vacation, pleasure, and visitor) (Álvarez & Urbina, 2018). During their stay in the country, they realize that the United States presents massive opportunities for personal and career growth. Their effort to get a permanent visa often fails because of a number of reasons. As such, most of them would decide to stay in the country despite their illegal status. They would get employed in various sectors of the economy and use every means necessary to avoid a possible arrest. The majority of these people are law-abiding and hardworking individuals. They rarely engage in crime because they are aware of the fact that an arrest would mean possible deportation. Their main reason to stay in the country is the access to employment or business opportunities in the country. A few often cite reasons such as political persecutions in their home country.

How People Can Stay Without Deportation

Making an illegal entry into the United States or overstaying one’s visa are highly discouraged practices that the United States government has been fighting over the past several decades. However, some people have valid reasons why they have to stay within the country. Different regimes have been using different strategies to ensure that those who are illegally staying in the country are deported as soon as they are arrested. The Trump administration was particularly harsh towards these illegal immigrants. Thousands were deported back to their home countries, especially those who were arrested while trying to make an entry into the country. Despite these harsh realities, these illegal immigrants can stay within the country without deportation.

Immigrants can stay in the US without being deported in several ways. When one made a legal entry into the country through various types of visas, they can request an extension of their stay. As Cheng (2021) explains, they are expected to make the request to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services using Form I-539. They will need to explain the reason for the extension and the additional period within which they want to stay in the country. When the authority establishes that one has a valid reason that is beneficial to the country, it is possible that their visa can be renewed on several occasions.

When one is faced with an order of deportation, then there are two options that they can use to extend their stay. First, they can make an application in the country that gave the deportation order, requesting it to cancel or vacate the order (Page et al., 2019). The second option is to make an application with the Immigration Service to cancel or waive the order of deportation (Juss, 2019). For these applications to be successful, one must have been physically present in the US for at least 10 years. Individuals should have demonstrated that they are of good moral character during their stay in the country. The two authorities have the power to cancel the deportation order.

The Current Path to Citizenship

The majority of the immigrants often desire to become United States citizens. However, the process is always challenging. Not all people who come to the country legally or illegally get the opportunity to become American citizens. It is necessary to understand the current path to becoming an American citizen. According to Álvarez and Urbina (2018), one of the most common and easiest ways of gaining citizenship is for one to hold a green card for a specific period. In most cases, the government would review one’s residency after 5 years, with a requirement that one must have stayed in the country for at least 3 years within the five-year review period.

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The government may also consider a legal immigrant (holder of a green card) who has been married to and living with an American citizen for at least 3 years. Having a child with that spouse enhances an individual’s chance of getting citizenship. One of also expected to be a resident of the state one is applying the citizenship for at least three months. Issues such as good conduct of an individual, involvement in socio-economic and political development in the country, and expertise are often considered when granting citizenship.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals DACA

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, often referred to simply as DACA, has been major protection to many immigrants from deportation. Page et al. (2019) explain that DECA protects individuals who were brought into the US as children from deportation and allows them to work. They may not necessarily become citizens of the country through this program, but they are allowed to work and lead a legal life in the country. Trump’s administration tried to challenge this program, arguing that it created a situation where many children are deliberately dumped into the United States by parents from South American countries as a way of protecting them from deportation. Some of these parents would come with their children through legal means and then leave these children with a friend or a relative. The United States Supreme Court ruled that the Trump administration could not suspect the DACA program. It meant that individuals who were brought into the country as children are shielded from deportation and are allowed to work in the country.


Illegal immigration remains one of the biggest challenges that every administration in the United States has to address. The country remains the preferred destination for international migrants. The strong economy, rich diversity, and the government’s respect for the rights and freedoms of citizens have made it attractive to many people around the world. Studies have shown that an overwhelming majority of illegal immigrants are involved in various socio-economic and political progress of the country. They are willing to take up some of the undesirable jobs in the agricultural and industrial sectors. As such, there is a need to allow them to stay in the country to help in the overall growth of the country. Although the government has put in place stringent measures that limit the ability of immigrants to become citizens, the study has identified and discussed various paths to citizenship in the country.


Álvarez, S. E., & Urbina, M. G. (Eds.). (2018). Immigration and the law: Race, citizenship, and social control. The University of Arizona Press.

Bishop, S. C. (2019). Undocumented storytellers: Narrating the immigrant rights movement. Oxford University Press.

Cheng, H. (2021). Cultivating membership in Taiwan and beyond: Relational citizenship. Lexington Books.

Garcia, A. S. (2019). Legal passing: Navigating undocumented life and local immigration law. University of California Press.

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Juss, S. S. (Ed.). (2019). Research handbook on international refugee law. Edward Elgar Publishing Limited.

Page, B., Seawright, J., & Lacombe, M. J. (2019). Billionaires and stealth politics. The University of Chicago Press.

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