What Crimes Make Immigrants Inadmissible to the U.S.?

Types of crimes that can bar someone from getting a U.S. green card or visa.

By , J.D. · University of Washington School of Law

Having a record of committing certain crimes can make a person inadmissible to the United States. That means the person is ineligible to receive either a nonimmigrant visa (for a temporary stay) or an immigrant visa (otherwise known as lawful permanent residence, with a green card), regardless of whether they otherwise seem to meet the qualification requirements for one.

Exactly which crimes or violations are a problem for someone seeking a U.S. visa or green card? The list is contained in Section 212 of the Immigration and Nationality Act or I.N.A. Below is a brief summary of what that law says.

Note: This article does not address security violations, such as terrorism or espionage, which are separate grounds of inadmissibility to the United States.

Summary of Criminal Grounds of Inadmissibility

You become inadmissible to the U.S. if you have been convicted of, admit to having committed, or admit having committed acts that add up to the essential elements of one of the following:

  • A crime involving moral turpitude (other than a purely political offense) or attempting or conspiring to commit such a crime. Two exceptions exist, including one for minors (under 18 years of age) who committed the crime and were released from any prison or confinement more than five years before applying for a visa or other immigration benefit; and one for where the maximum penalty possible for the person's crime is less than one year's imprisonment, and the person was not, in fact, sentenced to more than six months.
  • A violation of (or a conspiracy or attempt to violate) any controlled substance (drug) law, whether it's a U.S. or foreign law.
  • Multiple criminal convictions (two or more, other than purely political offenses) for which the total, aggregate prison sentences were five years or more. It doesn't matter whether the conviction came from a single trial or scheme of misconduct or from separate ones.
  • Illicit trafficking in any controlled substance (drug). No actual conviction is required for this one: It's enough that the consular officer or the Attorney General has reason to believe that you've been a trafficker, or even a knowing aider, abettor, assister, conspirator, or colluder with others in illicit trafficking.
  • Benefiting from illicit drug trafficking, by a spouse, son, or daughter of the trafficker within the previous five years. This means having obtained any financial or other benefit from such illicit trafficking, while having known or reasonably should have known where the money or other benefits came from.
  • Prostitution and commercialized vice. This applies to people who will or have engaged in prostitution (within ten years of applying for a visa or other immigration benefit), as well as to those involved in procuring prostitutes or who receiving proceeds from prostitution, as well as to anyone coming to the United States to engage in any other unlawful commercialized vice.
  • Involvement in serious criminal activity, where the person has asserted immunity from prosecution, departed the United States as a result, and not subsequently submitted to the jurisdiction of the relevant U.S. court.
  • Particularly severe violations of religious freedom while serving as a foreign government official.
  • Human trafficking, whether inside or outside the United States; or apparently being a knowing aider, abettor, assister, conspirator, or colluder with such a trafficker in severe forms of trafficking in persons.
  • Benefiting from human trafficking, by a spouse, son, or daughter of the trafficker, within the previous five years, where the person knew or reasonably should have known where the money or other benefits came from. There is an exception for a son or daughter who was a child at the time of receiving the benefit.
  • Laundering of monetary instruments; or apparently being a knowing aider, abettor, assister, conspirator, or colluder with others in money laundering.

Immigration Waivers Available for Some Crimes

Not all crimes are an absolute bar to inadmissibility. In some cases, you may apply to the decision-maker on your case for a waiver (legal forgiveness) allowing you to go forward with your application. The available waivers are described in Section 212(h) of the I.N.A.

Waivers may be available for crimes of moral turpitude; multiple criminal convictions; prostitution and procurement of prostitutes; and assertions of immunity from prosecution, as well as drug violations that involved a single offense of simple possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana. In order to qualify for the waiver, the applicant will need to persuade the authorities of all of the following:

  • Either the violation involved prostitution, or it took place more than 15 years before the date of the alien's application for a visa, admission, or adjustment of status.
  • Admitting the applicant to the United States of such alien would not be contrary to the national welfare, safety, or security of the United States.

See Filing for an I-192 Waiver: "Forgiveness" of U.S. Inadmissibility for information on getting one of these waivers.

See an Attorney

Please do not rely on this summary alone to analyze your case. In fact, if you have been arrested for a crime and hope to obtain a U.S. immigration benefit such as a green card, or you already have a crime on your record, it will be essential for you to consult with an experienced immigration attorney before going forward with your application.

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