There are millions of non-U.S. citizens (also called "foreign nationals" or "aliens") living in the country at any given time. Many live here legally. For example, if you are a "permanent resident" or have a "green card," you can live and work in the U.S. indefinitely and enjoy most of the rights and privileges that U.S. citizens have. Or you may be here on a visa, which lets you stay in the country temporarily while you work or go to school.
Some non-citizens are here illegally, including those who entered the country along the border without formal admission, and those who stay on after their permitted stay according to a visa has expired (as shown on their Form I-94).
Regardless, if you're in the U.S. but are not a U.S. citizen, a criminal conviction may mean your deportation or removal from the United States. That is, the federal government can send you back to your native country and bar you from reentering for a number of years.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has stated that its immigration enforcement efforts prioritize removal of convicted criminals and people considered threats to public safety, border security, and national security.
Crimes and Convictions
Under U.S. immigration law, a non-U.S. citizen may be deported or removed from the country if he or she commits any of the following:
- Crime of moral turpitude (CIMT). A person may be deported for a CIMT if convicted within five years after admission to the U.S. or convicted of having committed two or more CIMTs that did not arise out of a single scheme of criminal misconduct at any time after admission to the United States. What is a CIMT? It likely won't be mentioned in the statute under which the person was convicted. Rather, under the immigration law definition, it involves some act that is base, depraved, dishonest, or vile. Examples include murder, rape, DUI, fraud, assault with the intent to rob or kill, and arson. There is a "petty offense exception," which applies if the penalty for the crime could not possibly exceed one year of imprisonment, and the person actually served less than six months in prison.
- Aggravated felonies. If you commit an aggravated felony at any time after being admitted to the U.S., you may be placed into deportation proceedings. Dozens of crimes may qualify as aggravated felonies, such as murder, rape, other crimes of violence, theft with a sentence of at least one year in prison, drug or firearms trafficking, sexual abuse of a minor, child pornography, money laundering, spying, treason, or sabotage, and so on. It doesn't matter how long the person has been in the U.S., either.
- Failure to register as a sex offender. If you have been convicted of a sex-related crime and are required to register as a sex offender under the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, and you don't register, you may be deported from the United States.
- Drug-related crimes . You may be deported if you have been convicted of selling, distributing, or possessing illegal drugs or "controlled substances." The exception is if the conviction is your first and was for possessing 30 grams or less of marijuana for your own, personal use. And there's a separate ground of deportation that doesn't require a conviction: It applies to anyone who, at any time after U.S. admission, has been a drug abuser or addict. How would the immigration authorities find out? The person’s own confession to drug use, or evidence on a medical report, could tip them off.
- Gun-related crimes . A conviction for buying, selling, owning, or carrying a firearm, weapon, or other destructive devices, at any time after having been admitted to the U.S., is a deportable offense.
- Crimes of domestic violence. This means any crime of violence committed against a current or former spouse, the other parent of a child, or any person you are living with or used to live with.
- Crimes against the U.S. or other citizens. You may be deported if you commit an act of treason or espionage for which the possible sentence is at least five years, or an act of terrorism.
These are just a few examples; many other criminal convictions may lead to deportation. You absolutely need to have an experienced attorney check the federal immigration laws, as well as the criminal laws in the state where the crime was committed, to see if you are subject to deportation.
Can You Come Back to the U.S. After Deportation for a Crime?
Maybe. Whether you can return to the U.S. after deportation depends on the crime for which you were deported. If you were convicted of an aggravated felony, you can't return to the United State ever. If your conviction was for any other crime, you may be allowed to re-enter the U.S., but not immediately. You may have to wait up to ten years before you can file an application on Form I-212 to re-enter.
If you're a non-U.S. citizen and find yourself in trouble with the police or federal agents, you should contact a team of experienced attorneys immediately. By contacting a criminal law attorney as soon as you've been charged with a crime, you may be able to avoid a criminal conviction and deportation altogether; but you will ideally want to have an immigration attorney consult with the criminal-law attorney, who may not be familiar with the overlap between the two sets of laws.
If a conviction can't be avoided, an immigration law attorney may be able to help you stay in the United States. The immigration laws and processes are complicated, and it's best not to go it alone.
Questions for Your Attorney
- I can't be deported for a shoplifting conviction, can I?
- Can I ask for asylum even if I've been convicted of a crime and ordered to attend removal proceedings?
- How long can my son be held in detention while waiting for his deportation hearing?
- Is my recent (seemingly minor) crime likely to be classified as a "crime of moral turpitude" or "aggravated felony?"