Crimes That Make U.S. Visa or Green Card Applicants Inadmissible (Ineligible for a Visa or Green Card)

A crime on one's record can block eligibility for a visa or U.S. lawful permanent residence. Learn the details here.

By , J.D.

If you are applying for a U.S. visa or for lawful permanent residence (a "green card"), the government officials reviewing your application will take steps to make sure that you are not "inadmissible" to the United States. If you are inadmissible, it means that you will be denied the green card or visa unless the law provides an opportunity for you to apply for legal forgiveness, called a "waiver," and you successfully do so.

The grounds of inadmissibility are found in Section 212(a) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (I.N.A.) (or 8 U.S.C. § 1182(a).) They include various crimes, along with other things like communicable diseases, past immigration violations, and the likelihood of needing government financial assistance.

Crimes, however, tend to present a major problem for many immigrants. Still, not every crime on a person's record makes them inadmissible. This article discusses the ones that do.

Note that crimes on a person's record are also a problem after an immigrant receives a U.S. visa or green card. However, these crimes are analyzed under a separate part of the immigration law, referred to as the grounds of "deportability." Some overlap exists; anyone who has committed a serious or violent crime is likely to be both inadmissible and deportable.

Which Crimes Made the Statutory List of Inadmissibility Grounds

Here is a summary of the crimes or related activities that the I.N.A. lists as making a visa or green card applicant inadmissible. Note that not all of them require an actual conviction in court. Sometimes just admitting to a crime or ground of inadmissibility is enough.

  • Conviction of a crime involving moral turpitude (but not a purely political offense). This includes any attempt or conspiracy to commit such a crime. It excludes crimes committed when the person was under the age of 18 years, so long as the person was released from jail more than five years before applying for a visa or other immigration benefit. It also excludes crimes for which the maximum penalty did not exceed one year in prison and the person was not, in fact, sentenced to more than six months in prison.
  • Conviction or admission of a controlled substance violation, whether under U.S. or foreign law. This includes any conspiracy to commit such a crime.
  • Convictions for two or more crimes (other than purely political ones) for which the prison sentences totaled at least five years. This multiple-offense ground of inadmissibility applies whether or not the convictions came from a single trial and whether or not the offenses arose from a single scheme of misconduct or involved moral turpitude.
  • Conviction of or participation in (according to the reasonable belief of the U.S. government) controlled substance trafficking. This includes anyone who knowingly aided, abetted, assisted, conspired, or colluded in illicit drug trafficking. It also includes the spouse, son, or daughter of the inadmissible applicant if that person has, within the last five years, received any financial or other benefit from the illicit activities, and knew or reasonably should have known where the money or benefit came from.
  • Having the purpose of engaging in prostitution or commercialized vice upon coming to the United States, or a history, within the previous ten years, of having engaged in prostitution.
  • Procurement or attempted procurement or importation of prostitutes, directly or indirectly, or receipt of proceeds of prostitution, any of which occurred within the previous ten years.
  • Assertion of immunity from prosecution after committing a serious criminal offense in the U.S., if the person was thus able to depart the U.S. and has not since submitted fully to the jurisdiction of the relevant U.S. court .
  • Commission of particularly severe violations of religious freedom while serving as a foreign government official.
  • Commission of or conspiracy to commit human trafficking offenses, within or outside the U.S., or being a knowing aider, abettor, assister, conspirator, or colluder with such a trafficker according to the knowledge or reasonable belief of the U.S. government. Also inadmissible are the spouse, son, or daughter the applicant if they, within the previous five years (but when older than children), received financial or other benefits from the illicit activity and knew or reasonably should have known that the money or other benefit came from the illicit activity.
  • Conviction of an aggravated felony, if the person was removed from the U.S. and seeks to return (this ground of inadmissibility lasts for 20 years)
  • Seeking to enter the U.S. to engage in money laundering, or a history of having laundered money, or having been (according to the knowledge of the U.S. government) a knowing aider, abettor, assister, conspirator, or colluder with money launderers.

These are the straightforward crimes that are mentioned in the immigration law. The statute also lists a number of security violations, such as involvement in espionage, sabotage, terrorism, Nazi persecution, totalitarian parties, and so forth. Do not rely on this list alone in assessing your immigration situation; get help from an experienced immigration attorney.

How Might Various Small Crimes Add Up to "Multiple Convictions"?

Let's say, for example, that you were involved in a credit card scheme and, as a result, were convicted of (1) illegal possession of credit cards, for which you received a one-year sentence, (2) fraudulent use of credit cards, for which you received a two-year sentence, and (3) forgery, for which you received a two-year sentence. That adds up to three offenses, with a total aggregate sentence time of five years, thus making you inadmissible.

Let's look at some other issues that come up with multiple convictions.

Will Possession of a Small Amount of Marijuana Count Towards My Number of Criminal Convictions?

Many non-citizens become inadmissible due to controlled substance violations—whether a conviction or their own admission to a felony or misdemeanor drug offense. Not only do drug offenses trigger inadmissibility, but they permanently preclude non-citizens from obtaining lawful permanent resident status.

The only exception is for simple possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana, if the person does not have any prior drug convictions. However, this exception can pose problems for defendants attempting to negotiate a plea bargain, because a simple possession offense in state court can still be counted as an added conviction in immigration court.

An immigration judge can, however, waive the conviction for possession of marijuana if the amount is under 30 grams. With such a waiver, the conviction will not count towards the total number of convictions.

Will a Simple Possession of Drug Paraphernalia Count Towards My Number of Convictions?

For a defendant in criminal court, being accused of possession of drug paraphernalia can carry a light sentence—a fact that often leads defense attorneys to bargain for such a charge. But a non-citizen seeking relief in immigration court who has a conviction for possession of drug paraphernalia on record can become inadmissible. Currently, there is no waiver for possession of drug paraphernalia, so a conviction would count towards a non-citizen's total number of convictions.

How Do Crimes Involving Moral Turpitude Affect Multiple Convictions?

A non-citizen is inadmissible for a conviction of a crime involving moral turpitude. See What's a Crime of Moral Turpitude According to U.S. Immigration Law for a discussion of CMTs. For purposes of inadmissibility, there is an exception for petty offenses. A CMT cannot be a basis for inadmissibility if you have committed only one crime, and the maximum possible sentence for that offense is one year or less, and the actual sentence of imprisonment, whether active or suspended, was six months or less.

If you have been convicted of one CMT and meet the criteria just described, your conviction will not be counted for multiple conviction purposes. However, if you have multiple prior CMT convictions, you will not qualify for this petty offense exception, and your convictions will count towards the total.

Will Alternative Sentencing Programs or Procedures or Post-Conviction Relief Get Rid of a Criminal Conviction?

As a non-citizen, you might believe you won't have problems with inadmissibilty because you've had one or more convictions on your record expunged or because you received deferred prosecution, probation, or some form of post-conviction relief (likely as a result of being a first-time offender).

But that's not always true, largely because of the way a conviction is defined for immigration purposes. Any punishment, penalty, or term of imprisonment ordered by the court, such as incarceration, probation, drug and alcohol programs, community service, or anger management can qualify as a conviction, thus further adding to the number of convictions on one's record. (See I.N.A. § 101(a)(48)(A).)

How Are Immigrants' Crimes Discovered Within the Visa or Green Card Application Process?

Any time someone applies for a visa or green card, they are asked to state whether they have ever been arrested for or convicted of a crime. Of course, some people lie on their applications—but in many cases the lies are discovered, because fingerprint checks are a requirement of most immigration applications. And once a person is caught in a lie, they become ineligible for virtually any U.S. immigration benefit in the future.

If you have a crime on your record, or see anything on the above list that makes you question your admissibility to the United States, by all means consult with an experienced immigration attorney. It's possible that you do not match the grounds of inadmissibility listed in the statute, or that you qualify for a waiver of inadmissibility, but you would definitely need an attorney's help in determining this or preparing the necessary waiver application.

For more information, see the Inadmissibility and Waivers section of Nolo's website.

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