Will a Green Card Holder With a DUI Be Allowed to Reenter the U.S.?

By itself, a DUI shouldn't block a lawful permanent resident's reentry, but watch out for aggravating factors.

By , Attorney (University of Miami School of Law)

Getting convicted of a DUI (driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs) is an unfortunate development for anyone, but can have added legal implications for a foreign national. We'll focus here on the situation of a lawful permanent resident (a green card holder) who is planning an overseas trip. Should they worry about being allowed back into the United States (at which point they might be evaluated for inadmissibility)?

A Single DUI Shouldn't Make Immigrant Inadmissible, Unless It Involved Aggravating Factors

By itself, a conviction for a single DUI (driving under the influence) or DWI (driving while intoxicated) does not usually cause immigration problems for green card holders.

Nevertheless, it would be worth checking in with an experienced immigration attorney, because any issue that involves the overlay between criminal and immigration laws gets complicated fast, and the stakes are high. If you have more than one DUI conviction, or if aggravating factors were present in your case (someone was injured, or you were driving with a suspended license, or there was a child in the car, for instance), then the consequences could be more serious.

Any time a green card holder commits a crime, it raises two questions:

DUIs and Inadmissibility

"Inadmissibility" refers to a list of reasons within U.S. immigration law that a foreign national can be barred from entry to the United States. (See Section 212 of the Immigration and Nationality Act or I.N.A.) Your original application for a green card was approved only because you were found not to be "inadmissible" (unless you got a waiver of a ground of inadmissibility).

As a green card holder, your request to reenter the U.S. will be tested against the grounds of inadmissibility if you either stayed out of the country for 180 days or more, committed a crime before you left the U.S., or committed a crime while you were away. The relevant criminal grounds of inadmissibility most likely to block a person's right to reentry are:

Upon return to the U.S., the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer who greets you will run your fingerprints through various law enforcement databases. If the search turns up information indicating that one of these grounds of inadmissibility applies to you, the officer could put you into "secondary inspection" and you could ultimately be denied reentry to the United States.

For more information on what happens at the border when you return to the U.S. after a criminal conviction, see Can a Green Card Holder With a Criminal Conviction Travel Outside the U.S.?

DUIs and Deportability

U.S. immigration law also contains a list of grounds of "deportability," which apply to green card holders. (See I.N.A. § 237.) If something on this list matches you, you can be placed into immigration court (removal) proceedings and ultimately deported from the U.S. even if you haven't taken a trip and tried to return.

Your travel, however, raises the chances that your file will be looked at and your deportability discovered and acted upon. With an order of deportation on your record, you will be barred from returning to the U.S. for many years.

For a person with a DUI on record, the grounds of deportability to worry about include convictions for:

  • aggravated felony: a broad category that not only includes serious crimes such as rape, murder, and trafficking, but also various other types crimes such as theft, obstruction of justice, use of false documents, smuggling, or forgery, where the sentence was, or in some cases could have been, one year or more (a person's conviction may be called a misdemeanor under state law and nevertheless match the federal definition of an aggravated felony)
  • crime of violence (though a DUI resulting in injury is usually NOT considered a crime of violence unless it involved the intentional use of force)
  • crime of moral turpitude committed within five years of admission to the U.S., with a possible sentence of one year or more (again, simple DUIs are usually not viewed as CIMTs in the absence of aggravating factors)
  • two separate crimes involving moral turpitude, or
  • controlled-substance offense (including marijuana).

If you are found to be possibly deportable upon return to the U.S., you could be ordered to attend immigration court proceedings for possible removal from the United States.

DUIs and U.S. Citizenship

Although a DUI is not a complete bar to naturalization (applying for U.S. citizenship), it can become a problem for the requirement that an applicant show "good moral character." For more on how DUIs can affect an application for naturalization, see Got a DUI: Can I File Form N-400 for U.S. Citizenship?

Getting Legal Help

If you have been arrested for a DUI or anything else, definitely contact a criminal attorney as well as an experienced immigration attorney to discuss your potential options to protect you against deportation or other negative immigration consequences.

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