How to Legally Live and Work in the U.S.

Who is eligible to live and work in the United States?

There are essentially 3 statuses related to legally living and working in the U.S.

  1. U.S. citizen: natural-born citizens or naturalized citizens (those who have become a citizen)
  2. Legal/lawful permanent resident (green card holder)
  3. Temporary legal status

If you are not a U.S. citizen, you may legally live and work in the United States only if you obtain a legal immigration status – either permanent or temporary. Legal status can be obtained by the following routes:

  1. Family: You have certain family members legally in the U.S.
  2. Work or Business: Your U.S.-based employer is willing to apply for legal status for you, or you have certain business to conduct in the U.S.
  3. Study: You study at a U.S. school
  4. Refugee: You are fleeing persecution in your home country, or your country is designated as a conflict zone.
  5. Other: There are other specific ways to get legal status, such as people who were brought here illegally as children

Who qualifies for family-based immigration?

A U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident (aka green card holder) may sponsor (apply for) legal status for certain relatives.

U.S. citizens may sponsor a spouse, child, parent, or sibling. Legal permanent residents may sponsor a spouse or unmarried child.

The primary form to use is the I-130 or I-130A.

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Who qualifies for work or business-based legal status?

U.S. employers may sponsor certain employees, depending on the type of work they do. For example, highly skilled workers may qualify for work-based legal status (H-1B).

Certain individuals with extraordinary ability or achievement in the sciences, arts, education, business, athletics, or extraordinary recognized achievements in the motion picture and television fields may qualify to apply on their own (O-1).

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Who qualifies for study-based legal status?

The F-1 Visa allows you to enter the United States as a full-time student at an accredited college, university, seminary, conservatory, academic high school, elementary school, or other academic institution or in a language training program. You must be enrolled in a program or course of study that culminates in a degree, diploma, or certificate and your school must be authorized by the U.S. government to accept international students.

The M-1 visa category includes students in vocational or other nonacademic programs, other than language training.

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Who qualifies for refugee-based legal status?

There are two types of refugees: those who have been specifically persecuted, and those who are fleeing extremely difficult conditions in their home country.

Asylum status: People who have or fear they will suffer persecution due to race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group (such as LGBT), or political opinion, may qualify to apply for asylum status. The primary form is the I-589.

Refugee status: You must receive a referral to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for consideration as a refugee. These types of refugees may qualify for Temporary Protected Status (TPS), using form I-821.

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What are other ways to obtain legal status?

Some other ways to obtain legal status are for people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children, or those in the U.S. who have been a victim of trafficking or serious crimes.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA): People who were brought here illegally as children are often known as “Dreamers.” They may be eligible for legal status through the DACA program, using form I-821d.

Victim of Crime: People who have been the victim of trafficking or serious crimes may be eligible for a T visa or U visa.

Further Resources

See more information about What Immigrants Can and Can’t Do in the U.S.

The information provided on this page is courtesy of immigration consultant Isai Ramirez. Find an immigration lawyer.

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