Is It Illegal to Transport an Undocumented Immigrant Within the U.S.?

Federal laws concerning transport of aliens who are in the U.S. illegally; and developing state laws on the matter.

By , Attorney · University of Miami School of Law

Many undocumented immigrants or aliens live in the United States, and it's entirely possible that you know some, perhaps without realizing it. That has led some people to worry that it could be a crime to give one of them a ride, for example in a carpool or even while driving for a ridesharing app like Lyft or Uber. While this is unlikely to be a problem for the average driver under federal law, drivers who cross state borders should be aware of how they could be affected by new state laws.

Federal Law Makes Transporting Undocumented Immigrants a Crime

A federal law does exist that makes it a crime to transport (or attempt to transport) an undocumented noncitizen within the U.S., but it's meant to cover narrower situations than everyday situations like offering a ride. The law is found within the Immigration and Nationality Act (I.N.A.), at Section 274(a)(1)(A)(ii).

In order to convict someone under this section of the law, the prosecutors would need to prove each of these things:

  • the defendant transported or attempted to transport a noncitizen within the U.S.
  • the noncitizen was in the U.S. in violation of U.S. law (as would be the case with any undocumented person )
  • the defendant was aware that the noncitizen was in the U.S. unlawfully and acted in reckless disregard of this fact, and
  • the defendant acted "willfully" in furtherance of the noncitizen's legal violation (in order words: voluntarily and intentionally helped the noncitizen to intentionally violate immigration law)

A friend or neighbor who has been driving (transporting) a foreign-born person around, and might not even be entirely sure of their immigration status, doesn't really fit this profile. The classic situation this law is meant to address is that of a driver who picks up unlawful entrants right after they've crossed the U.S. border and takes them closer to civilization, likely motivated by profit.

In fact, federal courts have decided that not even the act of transporting undocumented workers from one job site to another is a crime under this section. (See U.S. v. Moreno, 561 F.2d 1321 (9th Cir. 1977). Similarly, the law is carefully written so as to avoid the possibility that a bus or taxi driver could be prosecuted for unknowingly picking up an undocumented immigrant. The prosecutor would have to prove the driver intentionally helped the undocumented person break the law.

Penalties for Transporting Undocumented Immigrants Under Federal Law

If, despite this description, you're still worried that the worst might happen if you interact with undocumented immigrants, you probably want to know the possible penalty for this crime. Federal penalties can include a fine, a prison term of up to five years, or both. That penalty goes up to a possible ten years if the driver was acting for commercial advantage or private gain, and to 20 years to life in prison if anyone is seriously injured or dies as a result of the crime.

Consult a lawyer if you feel you need more information or a personal analysis.

How Is Florida Addressing Transport of Undocumented Immigrants?

Although immigration law is mostly handled at a federal level, in July of 2023, a Florida law went into effect that specifically made it a crime to transport undocumented persons into the state. The ACLU and other organizations challenged this law in federal court as unconstitutional. As of the date this article was last updated (May 2024), a federal court had temporarily blocked Section 10 of this law, the key provision that put Floridians and residents of other states (citizens and foreign nationals alike) at risk of being arrested, charged, and prosecuted with a felony for transporting a vaguely defined category of immigrants into the state.

Nevertheless, because the litigation is not yet over, this section will cover what the law says and the maximum penalties for violating it. If you're concerned that you could be charged under this law, you should consult an attorney.

FL 1718 works by expanding the definition of human smuggling in Florida's human smuggling laws. Before FL 1718, it was already illegal to smuggle people across the U.S. border into Florida—its borders naturally limited that to the coastlines. The additions to state law, however, make it a crime to transport any undocumented person into the state. (You can read a breakdown of the exact changes in the text of the bill.)

This means Florida can prosecute you for helping someone enter Florida from another state while they are undocumented. It adds higher penalties for transporting minors, and it is broad enough to include transporting yourself, if you are undocumented. For example, if you came into the U.S. legally, but your minor child did not, and you bring your child to Florida, you could be charged with a felony and prison time, which can be grounds to revoke your visa.

Requirements to Convict Under This Section of Florida Law

In order to convict someone of transporting an undocumented person (which can include yourself), a Florida prosecutor would have to prove:

  • the defendant knowingly and willfully (intentionally) transported an undocumented person into Florida
  • the undocumented person entered the U.S. in violation of U.S. law, and has not been inspected by the federal government since entering
  • the defendant knew, or reasonably should know, that the undocumented person entered the country illegally and has not been inspected by the federal government since entering.

The law does not define exactly what "undocumented" or "inspected" mean. A person who obtained a valid visa is clearly documented and has been inspected. However, it is unclear whether a person would be considered inspected if they entered without a visa, in order to apply for asylum or refugee status, for example, and their petition is currently being processed.

If you're confused, you're not alone. This law's lack of clarity is just one of the reasons it has been challenged in the courts.

However, a few things about the law are fairly clear. You probably don't have to worry about this law if:

  • you're already in Florida and not crossing the border, no matter your immigration status or who you are transporting
  • you're planning on entering Florida, and everyone in the car is a documented foreign national or U.S. citizen (including yourself),
  • you're a driver for a rideshare app crossing into Florida, and you yourself are a documented foreign national.

Penalties for Transporting Undocumented Immigrants Under Florida Law

If you're worried about Florida's law, you should know that the penalties are much higher than the penalties for violating the federal law. The minimum penalty is a third-degree felony charge punishable by up to 5 years in prison and a $5,000 fine per person transported. Repeat offenses can increase the penalties. Repeated violations of Florida's new "human smuggling" provisions can even establish a pattern of "racketeering" activity, a first-degree felony charge punishable by up to 30 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

How Would You Know Someone's U.S. Immigration Status in the First Place?

There's no reason to jump to conclusions about someone's immigration status. Even an immigrant who doesn't have a green card (lawful permanent residence) might at least have temporary permission to be in the U.S., along with a work permit. Perhaps they're an applicant for asylum or some other legal status. U.S. government processing backlogs are so long that some people wait years for final decisions on immigration applications, and in some cases they can work while they wait.

What About Other States' Laws on Transporting Undocumented Persons?

As of December 2023, Florida is the only state to make a law like the one described above. However, if this law is upheld by the courts, there is a good chance other states will pass similar laws.

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