Can DACA Recipients Become U.S. Citizens?

In a Nutshell

In 2012 President Obama passed an Executive Order that launched the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program for millions of undocumented youth in the United States called Dreamers. DACA provides protection from deportation for eligible Dreamers, but it doesn't provide a pathway to long-term lawful permanent residence in the United States. Over the years, lawmakers have proposed many different laws to grant Dreamers a clear path to permanent residence and eventual citizenship, but none have passed yet. Still, it may be possible for some DACA recipients to get green cards and then naturalize as American citizens. This article explains the barriers to citizenship for DACA recipients and discusses the conditions under which some DACA recipients could get green cards and later naturalize.

Written by Jonathan Petts
Updated October 2, 2022

Why Can't DACA Recipients Apply for Citizenship?

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients have access to important benefits such as employment authorization and protection from deportation. DACA recipients can submit DACA renewals every two years to keep their work authorization (work permit) and the ability to remain in the country. But people with DACA status don’t yet have a direct path to citizenship in U.S. immigration law. 

DREAM Act Reform

Congress has debated immigration reform, including multiple drafts of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, several times over the last two decades. In the bill proposal, the Act would protect people in Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and would give Dreamers eligibility for permanent resident status. Permanent resident Dreamers could then apply for lawful immigration status for their undocumented family members. The Act would also provide a pathway to citizenship.

The bill has passed in the House of Representatives several times, but never in the Senate. The House of Representatives has approved the most recent 2021 DREAM and Promise Act. Now, it is up to the Senate to decide on the Act. President Biden has said he supports the Act, but the administration has yet to make headway to pave the way for DACA recipients’ citizenship.

Still, if a DACA recipient can manage to get permanent residence, they may be able to pave their way to citizenship. An example would be getting a green card through marriage.

How Can DACA Recipients Become Permanent Residents?

Some Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients may be able to apply for permanent resident legal status.

If you’re a DACA recipient who entered the country lawfully — that is, with a valid U.S. visa — then you satisfy the lawful entry requirement for a green card. You may be able to petition U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for an immigrant visa if you have an immediate relative like a spouse with U.S. citizenship or lawful permanent residence.

If you’ve entered the country lawfully, you can apply for a green card from within the United States. You can apply for the green card even if you have some unlawful presence. For example, if you spent time in the United States without a valid legal status. 

What if You Entered the U.S. Without a Valid Visa?

Many people entered the United States unlawfully, without a valid immigrant visa. In this case, you don’t yet meet the legal entry requirement. But you can meet the lawful entry requirement through Advance Parole.

Advance Parole travel documents allow DACA recipients to travel abroad and lawfully re-enter the U.S. when they return. Once you have lawfully re-entered the country, you may become eligible to apply for a green card. Still, if you haven’t yet entered the country lawfully, you’ll have to apply from your country of birth, usually after waiting out a three or 10-year re-entry bar if you don’t file an unlawful presence waiver with a lawyer’s help.

When Can You Naturalize After You Have a Green Card?

If you hold a green card for several years, you can eventually apply for naturalization to become a U.S. citizen. U.S. veterans can naturalize after three years. Non-veterans qualify for naturalization after five years of being a lawful permanent resident.

Once you are naturalized, you are a lawful U.S. citizen. Naturalization allows you to vote in U.S. elections, enter and exit the United States for travel, and apply to get green cards for your eligible family members. The process takes about 7-15 months and will cost $725.