Life after a criminal conviction can be difficult for a person who has a green card or a temporary visa. The first thing you should do is research the consequences of your criminal conviction and whether it could make you deportable or inadmissible. (See Crimes That Will Make an Immigrant Deportable and Crimes That Make U.S. Visa or Green Card Applicants Inadmissible (Ineligible for a Visa or Green Card)).
Let’s assume that you are living in the United States as a lawful permanent resident (“LPR”), and that you have a criminal conviction. But nothing has happened since you were arrested or served your sentence or probationary time, or followed through on other requirements. The U.S. government hasn’t come looking for you and you haven’t had any other issues with law enforcement.
Maybe you’ve even renewed your green card or applied for some other type of immigration benefit, like a travel document.
But now you want to travel abroad to see a relative, and you’re worried. What happens at the U.S. border when you try to return? Could your criminal conviction cause you any issues?
There are situations where someone has committed a deportable crime yet never came to the attention of U.S. immigration authorities. If this is your case, then traveling abroad could have serious consequences, including the U.S. government refusing to let you into the country or placing you in removal proceedings upon arrival. You would then need to first try and figure out if there is a way to waive your crime or fix your immigration status, which could involve applying for a green card all over again.
But the more likely scenario is that you have committed a non-deportable crime, which is why the government never came knocking on your door. Still, that doesn’t mean that you can travel worry-free.
Normally, leaving and reentering the U.S. won’t cause someone issues unless they've committed a deportable crime. But there are situations where the U.S. government treats a returning resident as someone seeking a new admission to the United States. This could affect you if:
These "new admission" rules make things more complicated, because there might be situations in which you are not deportable (meaning you don't match any of the legal grounds for the government to remove you from the U.S.) but you are nevertheless inadmissible (meaning you match one of the legal grounds upon which the government can stop you from entering the U.S.).
For example, if you commit one crime involving moral turpitude (CIMT), but it is not within five years of being admitted as a permanent resident, then you are not deportable. But that one crime will make you inadmissible, no matter when it took place.
If you fit one of the conditions listed above, then the U.S. government can treat you like you are seeking a new entry to the United States, applying all the grounds of inadmissibility found in U.S. immigration law (including criminal and other grounds).
Also, pay special attention to the length of your planned travel. Many people falsely believe that if they travel outside the U.S. for less than one year, they will be fine. But traveling for over six months can be an issue if you are inadmissible. If, for example, you have been convicted of a crime that makes you inadmissible, or if you admit to the border officer that you have committed a CIMT or a controlled substance offense, you might be placed in removal proceedings, as described below.
The U.S. government has provided a solution for permanent residents who want to travel over six months or one year without abandoning their residence. The government can issue a reentry permit, which authorizes the person to reenter the U.S. for up to two years. Many people think that having a reentry permit saves them from having to worry about any of the ramifications of traveling abroad.
Unfortunately, this is not the case. A reentry permit normally prevents the border officers from finding that you abandoned permanent residence, nothing more. You will still be seeking a new admission and will need to make sure you are not inadmissible. The U.S. border officer also has the ability to decide that you intended to give up your permanent residence even with a reentry permit, if other circumstances show that your trip abroad was not actually meant to be temporary.
If the U.S. border protection officer decides that you are inadmissible for any reason, you will be placed in removal proceedings. This means that you will most likely also be detained in an immigration detention facility. You will then have an opportunity to present your case before an immigration judge.
As an "arriving alien" (someone who arrives at the border but is not allowed to legally enter; a category which the B.I.A. says includes LPRs who fit the criteria on the list above), you will not be eligible to pay a bond in order to leave detention pending a decision in your case. That means you will likely have to defend your case before an immigration judge while staying in a detention facility.
As you can see, the pitfalls to traveling abroad are can be severe, although rare. If you have committed a crime, you must spend some time trying to figure out whether it makes you inadmissible. If it does, it’s best to avoid traveling overseas if possible. For example, see Will a Green Card Holder With a DUI Be Allowed to Reenter the U.S.?
You are most likely to run into issues of inadmissibility if you take long trips. Keeping any trips less than six months is a good idea in any case, to preserve your eligibility for citizenship (see Who Can Apply for U.S. Citizenship). But it is also important for avoiding issues of inadmissibility.
If you must travel as a permanent resident, and are unsure whether your crime makes you inadmissible, then you should at a minimum attempt to keep the trip as short as possible, and ideally consult with an immigration attorney.
Lastly, apply for citizenship as soon as you are eligible (bearing in mind the risk that your criminal record will place you into removal proceedings once you bring yourself to the attention of U.S. immigration authorities). Navigating the requirements of keeping your green card can be frustrating and complex. As a citizen, you can visit your home country any time you want and for any amount of time. Then you can truly travel worry-free.