Any person seeking a benefit under U.S. immigration law—a visa, permanent residency (a "green card"), or citizenship—must submit a written application. At some point during the process, that person will also interact directly with an immigration officer or official, by attending an interview at a consulate or at an immigration office. Most interviews aren't a big deal; the officer or official will essentially confirm what the applicant put on their written application.
During an interview, however, applicants frequently mix things up, leave things out, or get confused. Sometimes they tell an immigration officer something that is not true. This happens for a variety of reasons.
For example, maybe the applicant put one date on a form but used another date during the interview. That could be a simple mistake. Maybe the applicant was embarrassed about something, like a past crime or marriage. Maybe the applicant didn't understand the interpreter. However, sometimes the applicant is deliberately intending to deceive the officer.
While simple mistakes and misunderstandings will not normally cause any issues with your immigration application, deliberately lying to an immigration officer can have serious consequences. What that means and how much it can affect you will depend on your current immigration status, where the lie happened, and why you lied.
Because immigration officers make decisions to grant or deny visas and green cards based on what a person says, and the documents submitted during their application, there are strict penalties for people who lie to get an immigration benefit. Any applicant found to have used fraud or willful misrepresentation will be permanently inadmissible from the United States. (See 8 U.S.C. § 1182.)
An officer must determine that your actions fit the legal definition in order to find that you are inadmissible for fraud or willful misrepresentation. There is a small difference between fraud and willful misrepresentation, but the two start with the same elements. You must have been trying to get an immigration benefit or have received the benefit. During the process, you must have told a lie or intended to tell the lie, that lie must have been "material," and you must have told it to an immigration officer or official. That is enough for misrepresentation.
Fraud means that you also intended to deceive the immigration officer or official and that the officer or official acted on the false statement to grant the visa or green card.
A person who is inadmissible for fraud or misrepresentation will not be allowed to receive a visa or green card unless they qualify for a waiver. Or, if and when the fraud is found out later, after the person has a green card or visa, then the person is also deportable from the United States for having been inadmissible at the time of admission.
The good news is that a simple misstatement or mistake will not make an applicant inadmissible. For both fraud and misrepresentation, you must have intentionally lied, meaning that you knew that it was not true and told it to the officer anyway. If you didn't know that the statement was false, or if you thought it was true, then it is not fraud or willful misrepresentation. You must have also told a lie about something material to the application. This means that if you lied about a small fact that didn't matter it is not fraud or willful misrepresentation. You also must have told it to an immigration officer. This means that statements you put on a form cannot, by themselves, make you inadmissible for fraud or willful misrepresentation.
The consequences of lying to an immigration officer during the process of being formally admitted to the U.S. or while getting your green card can be harsh, but you might qualify for a waiver in certain situations.
A waiver of inadmissibility because of fraud is available in only two instances. First, a person can apply for a waiver as the spouse or child of a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, showing that their inadmissibility would cause extreme hardship to the U.S. citizen. This is done on Form I-601, and is similar to the standard that is used for the waiver of the three or ten-year bar.
When someone applying for K-1 a fiancé visa is inadmissible because of fraud or misrepresentation, the applicant may also apply for a waiver as if the applicant is already a spouse of a U.S. citizen. This is because U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) treats fiancé visa applicants as future spouses, and any grant of a waiver is valid only if the fiancé does marry the U.S. citizen or permanent resident spouse.
A waiver might also be available in cases where an applicant has a U.S. citizen parent, spouse, or child if the applicant can show extreme hardship and is a self-petitioner under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).
An applicant for U.S. citizenship appears before an immigration officer to review the application and for an interview. At the interview, the officer puts the applicant under oath.
Any lie under oath bars an applicant from showing good moral character, which is a prerequisite to qualifying for citizenship. An applicant for naturalization must show good moral character going back at least five years. But this is tricky, because the offense is the false testimony to USCIS itself. So false testimony at the naturalization interview will bar the applicant from applying for citizenship for the next five years.
False testimony in another situation will have the same effect, as long as the applicant was under oath. For example, a person could have lied to an immigration judge in removal proceedings, or the immigration officer during their green card interview. (Statements made on immigration applications don't count as statements under oath.)
An important thing to note is that there is no materiality requirement for false statements made under oath. This means that the statement doesn't have to relate to naturalization or the immigration benefit that you were seeking. It can be about something minor, which has no effect on eligibility for the benefit being sought. This bar to good moral character affects you as long as you were under oath and you told the officer something you knew was false.
As you can see, lying to an immigration officer can have extreme consequences including permanent inadmissibility, deportability, and not being allowed to apply for U.S. citizenship. While you might not always want to answer a question that the immigration officer asks, it is always a bad idea to lie. Consult an immigration attorney if you're feeling uncertain about how the truth will affect your application.