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What does it mean to be Undocumented? Illegal? What’s the Difference?

What’s the difference between someone who is undocumented in the United States and someone who is here illegally?

What does it mean to be “undocumented”?

When someone is in the United States “undocumented,” that means that the person entered the United States without inspection (without the proper documentation), and as a result are currently living in the United States without the proper documentation, hence the term “undocumented.”

What does it mean to be in the U.S. “illegally”?

On the other hand, someone who came to the United States on a valid visa (such as a student visa, tourist visa, etc.) and then lost their status, either because they did not renew their visa, or their visa expired, or for some other reason, are in the United States “illegally.” These individuals were legally in the United States at some point but are now in the United States “illegally” because they are now out of status. This is also referred to as a visa overstay.  That is because the individual has now stayed in the United States past the time authorized by their initial visa.

In both cases, the individual is in the United States without authorization because they do not have the proper visa.

Path to Residency

A person who is “undocumented” meaning that they entered the United States without proper inspection, cannot adjust their status to permanent residency so easily even where married to a U.S. Citizen. Undocumented parties married to U.S. Citizens must file a waiver of inadmissibility and in some cases will have to leave the United States before applying for residency.

By contrast, a person who entered the United States with proper inspection, but who is now in the United States illegally because of an overstay, can apply for permanent residency more easily, where married to a U.S. Citizen. These individuals do not have to leave the United States before applying for residency.

The key difference between the two is in whether the person entered the country with inspection. If you entered without inspection, you would be undocumented. If you entered with inspection, but have overstayed your visa, you are in the country illegally.

If you have questions about relating to your status and legalization, please contact us.

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