Many times an attorney may talk about “period of authorized stay” or “unlawful presence” or even “lawful status”. It is important to understand what all these terms mean and refer as the subtle differences between them can make a very big difference on whether you may have to leave the US or if you are able to stay in the US.
This refers to someone in the United States in a non-immigrant status with an unexpired I-94 who is acting in compliance with such status. Acting in compliance with you status means, for example, attending school with a full time course load in F-1 status, working for your authorized employer in H-1B status, not working at all in H-4 status, etc. Each status has its own requirements and every person in that status is expiated to follow those requirements. If you do not, you would no longer be considered to be in lawful nonimmigrant status and, instead, would be considered to be out-of-stays.
Period of Authorized Stay/Unlawful Status
If your I-94 expires or you violate your status as discussed above, are you automatically considered “out of status”? The answer to this is it depends on your circumstances. Even in a situation where your I-94 expires or you have violated your status, you may still be in a “period of authorized stay”, that is a period of stay authorized by the Attorney General. It is important to remember, however, even if you are in a period of authorized stay this is NOT the same as being in a valid status, and you are still considered to be in an unlawful status i.e. you are not in a lawful non-immigrant status.
There are several situation in which you can be in a period of authorized stay:
First, if you filed a timely requires to change or extend your status and subsequently your I-94 expires you will be considered to be in a period of authorized stay and are allowed to remain in the United States. A “timely” request is one that is filed while you are still in a valid non-immigrant status – that is your I-94 has not yet expired and you have not violated your status. This period of authorized stay will continue until USCIS adjudicates the case. If they approved the case, the decision will be retroactive and the entire period you were in the US will be considered in a valid non-immigrant status. While you are allowed to stay in the US during this time, you are still in the US in unlawful status until the extension or change of status application is approved
Second, if you filed a timely application to adjust status (an I-485) you will also be considered to be in a period of authorized stay even if your non-immigrant status expires and as long as the I-485 is still pending. While you are allowed to stay in the US in this situation, you are still in the US in unlawful status until the adjustment application is approved or you leave and re-enter the US in parole status.
Lastly, if you are in F or J non-immigrant status, or any other status in which your I-94 reads D/S as opposed to having an actual end date, you will be considered to be in a period of authorized stay up until the time USCIS issues a formal finding of a violation of status (more on this below). Once again, you will not longer be in lawful nonimmigrant status, but you will be in the US in a period of authorized stay.
If you are not in a valid non-immigrant status, and you are not in a period of authorized stay, you are usually accruing unlawful presence towards the 3, 10 or permanent immigration bars. Every day you are in the US and are not in a valid non-immigrant status or in a period of authorized stay, you are accruing another day of unlawful presence. If you are in the US for more than 180 days AT ONE TIME (not cumulative) in unlawful status and you leave the US you are barred from re-entering for 3 years. If you are unlawfully present in the US for more than 1 year AT ONE TIME (not cumulative), you will be barred from re-entering for 10 years. There is also a permeant bar which requires one year (cumulative) of unlawful presence IN ADDITION TO having tried to re-enter the US after the 1 year of unlawful presence and being denied re-entry (there are some exceptions to this and you should discuss your specific situation with an attorney). Furthermore, even one day of accruing unlawful presence can mean that you are ineligible to adjust status to that of a permanent resident (although there are exceptions to this general rule – again discuss your specific situation with an attorney).
You can begin to accrue illegal presence if you stay past the expiration date of your I-94 and do not have a pending extension, change or adjustment of status application pending. The same is true if you have filed a change, extension or adjustment of application and that application is then denied (and your underlying I-94 has expired). If you are in a non-immigrant status and you violate that status (i.e. work for an unauthorized employer, etc.) you will be in the US unlawfully, you would have violated your status, but you would not be accruing unlawful presence as long as your I-94 had not yet expired AND as long as USCIS had not indicated that you were no longer in status. Since those in F and J status are in the United States for “Duration of Status” or D/S, their I-94s do not expire and therefore they will not accrue illegal presence until USCIS informs them that they are no longer in status.
It is very important to understand the distinctions between unlawful presence, unlawful status, status violation, etc. as it can affect your ability to remain in the US get a visa, and can affect what happens to you if you were to leave the US. There is no substitute to talking to an attorney to determine which, if any, term applies to your status.