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.). 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 him or her 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
Here is a summary of the crimes or related activities that the I.N.A. lists as inadmissible. Note that not all of them require an actual conviction in court to make the applicant inadmissible. Do not rely on this list alone in assessing your immigration situation; get help from an experienced immigration attorney.
- 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.
How Immigrants’ Crimes Are Discovered
Anytime 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 U.S., 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 qualify for a waiver, 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.