US Visa: Travel Tips from an Immigration Lawyer Lawyer in Houston
Summer is prime travel season, and we all know what that means: school is out, the weather is warm, and it’s time to travel and enjoy a beach, an amusement park, or an exotic locale. Who doesn’t love vacations? Think about traveling to another country to enjoy a new experience: You get on a plane, arrive at your destination, enjoy the local sights, and then return to the United States to tell your family about it, go back to work, etc. If you’re coming to the U.S., or if you’re in the U.S. on a visa, the Visa Waiver Program, or you have a green card (“permanent residence”) and will be traveling internationally, there is a possibility that your return trip won’t be as smooth as you imagine.
My office gets calls and emails from people who are prevented from returning to the U.S., detained and/or placed in immigration court upon their return, or who are given much less time to stay in the U.S. upon their return than they expected. Some of the issues we often hear about are:
- People using Visa Waiver Program to enter the United States after a brief trip to Canada or Mexico are refused entry
- People with Visitor Visas are refused entry if a Customs and Border Protection Officer believes they will be working in the U.S. or intend to stay in the U.S. long-term
- Permanent residents who are accepting employment overseas are concerned about their ability to return to the United States and whether their absences will jeopardize their residence.
- A person is not allowed to board a flight to the U.S. after their country’s exit control determines they do not have the proper documentation to be admitted to the U.S.
- A Permanent Resident is detained at the airport and placed in immigration court after a trip overseas due to a criminal case for which they served their full sentence.
- A person who is seeking to visit their spouse or other family members in the United States is concerned that they might not be allowed in.
Part of our work involves working to lessen the risk of travel, advising our clients if they won’t be allowed back into the U.S. after an international trip, or to make the travel experience a little easier by helping a person anticipate issues and be prepared for them. What would it mean if you weren’t allowed to travel to the U.S., or you weren’t allowed back into the U.S.? What if you were put in immigration court?
What if you could take some time before you travel to avoid a huge problem with your immigration status? Sounds like it makes sense to take a little time up front rather than lots of time, stress, added expense and uncertainty after you travel.
Who’s Checking Your Info? U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP)
It is important to understand the role of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). CBP Officers are the men and women that staff airports, land border checkpoints, cruise terminals, and have Border Patrol Officers along the U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada in order to verify that a person is allowed to enter. CBP is a division of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
CBP fingerprints all non-US citizens entering the United States to cross-check their criminal and immigration backgrounds. When CBP started doing this a few years ago, people who had freely traveled in and out of the U.S. with no issues (especially people with green cards) had problems and some were placed in immigration court because of prior criminal convictions (even where they had successfully completed their sentence). Other people simply experienced several-hour delays at the port of entry while Customs and Border Protection checked their backgrounds and verified that they were authorized to enter the United States.
Now, Customs and Border Protection can also access information on USCIS filings, entries and exits, and other information when determining whether a person should be allowed into the United States. My advice to my clients is to be truthful in responses to questions at the Port of Entry. You need to understand that CBP can see almost everything that is happening with your situation. There’s no point in trying to lie about whether you are working in the U.S., going to school in the U.S., have a criminal history, or have a pending application with the Immigration Service.
It’s also important to know that CBP may ask you to open your laptop or let them see your mobile device so they can check your email and social media accounts to try to figure out if you have done or will do anything that is not allowed. This doesn’t just mean criminal activity. On some occasions, a person using a visitor visa or visa waiver is put on the next flight back to their country of origin when CBP sees information that seems to indicate that they are working in the United States without authorization. A person in the U.S. on Visa Waiver may also be refused entry if he or she comes to the U.S. frequently, and takes a short trip out of the U.S. and tries to return to stay for another 90-day period.
For example, I received a frantic call from an attorney last year who had a visitor detained at the airport. The visitor had said he was coming for business meetings with the attorney, but CBP checked his laptop and determined that he was really working at the attorney’s office. I also had a call from a family who had a relative detained at the airport because she frequently visited her relatives in the U.S., and CBP felt that she intended to permanently live here rather than just visit.
With all of this in mind, we prepared our latest guide, Know Before You Go, to give travelers information about how CBP processes travelers and ideas about how to prepare for international travel. We work to make our clients’ experiences as smooth as possible. Where there is a risk involved in travel, we want our clients to understand the risk and to be prepared to explain the purpose of their travel and their eligibility for entry into the U.S. We hope our guide is helpful to travelers to Houston, Texas and all over the United States.
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