If you entered the U.S. legally and maintained your non-immigrant status, you can get your green card without leaving the U.S. This procedure is referred to as “adjustment of status.” Immigration law allows you to adjust status if you entered the U.S. legally and if you meet all of the requirements to get a green card. While your application for adjustment of status is pending, you may travel abroad and you may work provided that you have permission to do both.
Immigrants who fell out of status are not eligible to adjust status. For example, if you came on a tourist visa and did not leave when you were supposed to, you are “out of status,” you then get a job, and your employer wishes to get you a green card. You are not eligible to adjust status through your employer. However, the rule that immigrants who fell out of status cannot adjust status has exceptions. Immediate relatives (spouses of U.S. citizens, parents of U.S. citizens, or unmarried children under age of 21 of U.S. citizens) are allowed to adjust status even if they fell out of status or worked without authorization if they entered the U.S. legally. Here is an example. You come on a tourist visa and do not leave. You get a job, which is probably not the job of your dreams, but it pays the bills. In a few years, you marry a U.S. citizen. You are eligible to adjust status and get a green card based on your marriage to a U.S. citizen even though you overstayed your tourist visa and even though you worked without authorization because you entered legally. This is when the adjustment of status procedure can be beneficial to you.
Immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally are not eligible to adjust status. However, there is an exception to this rule too. You may apply for adjustment of status under section 245(i) of the Immigration and Nationality Act even if you entered the U.S. unlawfully or overstayed your visa. You must have had a relative or an employer file a visa petition for you before April 30, 2001. If the visa petition or labor certification was filed between January 15, 1998 and April 30, 2001, there is an additional requirement that you must have been physically present in the U.S. on December 21, 2000. To apply for adjustment of status under section 245(i), you must submit an application to adjust status and pay a $1,000 fine.
My office successfully obtained green cards via adjustment of status petitions on behalf of people who married U.S. citizens after being out of status and working without authorization for years. If you believe that you may benefit from section 245(i), I encourage you to contact my office for a full analysis.