Wednesday, March 17, 2010

CBP On Your Side: Four Primary Programs To Address Customer Complaints

For the vast majority of travelers their experience with Customs and Border Protection (CBP), an agency within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, is - if not pleasant per se - at least uneventful. For some travelers though, their experience is anything but pleasant. When faced with such situations, it's important to know what to do and where to go for assistance.   

Take for example the unfortunate case of a client of mine who is a full-time Pastor who was returning with his wife from a short business trip to Central America. Upon presenting their U.S. passports they were placed in secondary inspection.  This couple, who are naturalized U.S. citizens, are elderly and one of them has a hearing impediment.  They were both accused of lying because they were "too old" to have gone on a business trip, and were also accused of having fake U.S. passports because they couldn't communicate well in English and they had an accent. After all, you can't have an accent if you're a U.S. citizen - right?  Well, after several hours of questioning, that included a CBP officer wanting to force the wife to sign a document where she "confessed" to having a fake U.S. passport, they were simply released with no apologies offered. 

This case is by all means the exception - rather than standard operating procedure. That's just my humble opinion, I'm pretty sure others would differ.  I will concede however that these events happen more than what one would suspect. Although no comfort to those affected, it's important to keep things in perspective. CBP is tasked with protecting our nation’s borders from, among other things, terrorism, human and drug smuggling, and agricultural pests.  This is no small task and that is why CBP employs more than 52,000 employees to man, among other things, the 327 official ports of entry in the United States and 15 Preclearance offices in Canada and the Caribbean. CBP is also responsible for guarding nearly 7,000 miles of land border the United States shares with Canada and Mexico. At the same time CBP does all of that, they must also work to facilitate the movement of legitimate trade and travelers, as the agency processes all people, vehicles and cargo entering the United States. According to CBP's website, on a typical day in fiscal year 2008, CBP processed approximately 1 million passengers and pedestrians; 70,000 containers; and 331,000 privately owned vehicles. 

CBP has four primary programs to receive and address customer complaints. These programs are explained in CBP's Fact Sheet, which include the Passenger Service Manager program, Comment Cards, Customer Service Centers, and Port Director or Supervisor direct response program. In addition to these programs, CBP has separate procedures for submitting a complaint, reporting officer misconduct, discrimination, and illegal activity. Each program has different procedures for receiving and handling complaints. Alternatively, complainants may contact a CBP Public Information Officer by telephone at 703-526-4200. You can also see a list of questions and answers relating to the complaint process.

Travelers are encouraged to visit CBP's website to avoid delays.  On their website travelers will find useful information like CBP's Top Ten Traveler Tips and the Traveler's Checklist along with a very handy "Know Before You Go" manual for U.S. Residents.  For those family members (and we all have them - I think), that try to sneak in "empanadas" "quesitos" and a host of other native delicacies and traditional herbs and remedies, you might want to point them to CBP's list of prohibited foods and other products

Hopefully none of the readers have to through what my clients went through, but if they do, you now know where to go.  Safe travel to all.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Custom and Border Protection (CBP) Revokes Notice to Appear (NTA) for Client Returning From Trip Abroad

Our law firm recently worked with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to have them return our client’s alien registration card or “green card” and to have them revoke the Notice to Appear (NTA) which had placed our client erroneously in removal proceedings. Our client was returning from a trip abroad and was detained upon inspection when their system showed incomplete information regarding a past criminal matter that did not result in a conviction.

The whole ordeal began when our client was returning from a short trip abroad. Like many times before, she presented her alien registration card or "green card" to the CBP officer upon disembarking the plane. This time though, she was in for an unpleasant surprise. As the CBP officer reviewed his computerized system, he noticed a "hit" or arrest in our client's background and placed her in secondary inspection. Secondary inspection is a separate, more thorough screening that normally lasts several hours. During this secondary inspection, the CBP officers involved misread the information on their computer, and instead of inquiring further with their legal department, they confiscated our client's green card and issued a Notice to Appear (NTA) which basically placed our client in removal proceedings.

When our client first came to see us she was understandably upset about the entire situation. Upon further review of her case, and close examination of her record, we determined that there were in fact no convictions and therefore the NTA should not have been issued. We contacted CBP and for the next several days corresponded back and forth until the issue was resolved in favor of our client. The NTA was ultimately revoked and our client got her green card back.

On a recent blog we discussed the dangers lawful permanent residents face when traveling abroad when they have previous criminal convictions. We encourage our readers to review that entry as it outlines factors that LPRs should consider before traveling. LPRs that have been arrested in the past but never convicted should travel with a certified copy of the Final Disposition Record. However, it is very important to highlight that the definition of what exactly constitutes a conviction is different for immigration purposes. Thus, a person might not have a conviction for state purposes or even have had the case expunged, and still have a conviction for immigration purposes. We will discuss the immigration definition of what constitutes a conviction on a different post. LPRs that are not sure whether they have a conviction for immigration purposes are urged not to travel until they have an experienced immigration attorney review their record.


Friday, March 5, 2010

Attention Lawful Permanent Residents With Past Criminal Convictions: Your Trip Abroad Might Just Be The Last One

Lawful Permanent Residents with past criminal convictions should think twice before traveling abroad. Every year the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) removes scores of LPRs that were detained and placed in removal proceedings upon their return from a trip abroad. At a minimum, prospective LPR travelers should seek the guidance of an experienced immigration attorney to determine whether their particular conviction subjects them to removal from the U.S.

Although traditionally an LPR was not deemed to make a new admission into the U.S. upon his or her return if the trip was "innocent, casual, and brief", presently Congress has defined when an LPR will be regarded as seeking a new admission. This issue of "admission" is significant for an LPR who would not be subject to removal from the U.S. but who might be inadmissible upon their return from a trip abroad.

An LPR will be regarded as seeking a new admission if he or she has committed a criminal offense under the provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) that deal with the criminal grounds of inadmissibility. The process normally works as follows. An LPR is returning from a trip abroad and presents his green card (I-551) to the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer in order to be admitted. The officer reviews his/her computerized system and notices a “hit” or arrest in the person’s background. They place the LPR in secondary inspection which is a separate, more thorough screening that normally lasts several hours. In this secondary inspection the LPR is questioned about, among other things, the arrest or conviction at issue. While the LPR is waiting in the secondary inspection area, CBP officers are reviewing their data and checking with their supervisors whether they have enough to charge the LPR under one of the grounds of inadmissibility. If CBP confirms that the prior conviction is not a ground of inadmissibility, they will release the LPR and return the alien registration or “green card” back to him or her.  The LPR being released should not expect an apology from CBP - none will be forthcoming unfortunately.  Also, the LPR being released should not expect not to go through the same procedure next time around. If CBP believes that the conviction renders the LPR inadmissible, or they simply can’t confirm whether it is or not, they will confiscate the alien registration card, and issue the charging document which is the Notice to Appear (NTA). The LPR is now placed in removal proceedings, and if not subject to mandatory detention, will be released to await his or her hearing before an immigration judge.

Keep in mind that the fact that an LPR with a criminal background has managed to travel back and forth for a period of time without being detained is no protection or guarantee at all. I’ve had several clients that have traveled for years without being detained, until their last trip when the CBP officer noticed their arrest and conviction. The fact that the offense might have occurred many years ago is irrelevant for removal purposes. An LPR is subject to removal from the United States for a violation of relevant immigration laws, regardless of the length of residency or the age at which it was attained. An individual who immigrated to the United States when he was a couple of months old who is now convicted of a crime at age 65 can and will be removed, depending on the nature of the conviction.

An LPR with a criminal background should weigh his or her options carefully before traveling abroad. At a minimum the person should seek the assistance of an immigration attorney in order to make an informed decision about their travel plans.  Being aware of the possible consequences gives the LPR an opportunity to not only make an informed decision, but to prepare accordingly.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Why You Shouldn't Withhold Important Information From Your Immigration Attorney

There are many important reasons why clients should not withhold important information from their attorneys. In my years working as an immigration attorney I have encountered people that, for one reason or another, have decided to hide important information that would have avoided problems in the future. Most people that fit this category are actually well-intentioned people that are extremely embarrassed by their past. Of course, there are some that think (or hope) that by not disclosing an arrest, that somehow no one will realize it. Hopefully the client feels comfortable enough with their attorney to confide in them very personal details about their past, especially when they have had any contact with the criminal justice system. The attorney also plays an important role in extracting some of this information and bringing the issue to the floor so an open and honest conversation can follow. It’s important that the applicant understand that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will require fingerprints to be taken as part of the application. At our office, not only do we ask every client whether they have ever been arrested or convicted whether in the United States or any part of the world, but we also have them complete a questionnaire that has several questions geared towards eliciting this type of information.

When in doubt, we have clients complete an FBI Identification Record, often referred to as a Criminal History Record or Rap Sheet. The FBI Rap Sheet is a listing of certain information taken from fingerprint submissions retained by the FBI in connection with arrests and, in some instances, federal employment, naturalization, or military service. Once submitted, the results normally arrive within 30-60 days. We recently had a case where the client mentioned that he “might have had” an arrest for being drunk in public many years ago. When the FBI Rap Sheet came back, it turns out that the arrest was for defrauding a taxi driver of his fare (while he was drunk). He was convicted of this offense which had greater immigration implications than a simple drunk in public offense since it had elements of “fraud” and “theft”.

No one wants to hear for the first time, coming from an immigration officer, “tell me about this arrest in ….”. I’ve had that happen to me a couple of times and it is not a good experience. In the best of cases the newly discovered conviction does not present any major problems (apart from the credibility issue) because it is not a ground of inadmissibility or deportability. In the worst of cases, the client never should have applied for an immigration benefit to begin with and the person now finds himself in deportation proceedings.

In all, the client’s interests are better served by having an open and honest conversation about these topics. Although momentarily uncomfortable for the client, being straightforward about their past can not only save them thousands of dollars in legal fees, but a lot of heartache for them and their family in the future.

A Petit Larceny Conviction Can Result in Deportation. In Fact, It Can Render a Person an "Aggravated Felon"

As most of our readers know, criminal convictions can have very serious consequences in an immigration matter. Take for example the case of a Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR) who was convicted of Petit Larceny in Virginia. He went to a local store and stole an item worth less than $50. Petit Larceny in Virginia is a Class 1 Misdemeanor punishable by a maximum of 365 days in jail and/or a fine. The individual hired a criminal law attorney that was not aware of the immigration consequences of pleading guilty to this offense. The individual plead guilty and was sentenced to 365 days in jail but with everything suspended. Everyone went home happy until later on that afternoon when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) stopped by his house to arrest him and placed him in deportation proceedings.

How could things go terribly wrong for this Lawful Permanent Resident? For starters, a suspended sentenced does not count for immigration purposes. As in this case, although the individual did not spend one full day in jail, immigration law only considers the actual sentence of 365 days. Additionally, this theft offense, coupled with a sentence of 365 days, made this individual an "aggravated felon" for immigration purposes. Because his offense is an aggravated felony, he remained in jail and was subsequently removed. A little bit of negotiating with the prosecutor may have avoided his deportation. For example, he would have been able to retain his LPR status had he actually spent 179 days physically in jail rather than having his entire sentence suspended. This is so because a sentence of 179 days (time served) wouldn't meet the definition of "aggravated felony" for a theft offense since it's less than 365 days. Given that the judge suspended all 365 days, he wouldn’t have had a problem with a 179 day sentence (or less) of actual time served.

There are many things that can be learned from this. One of those lessons should be that anyone facing a criminal charge, who is not a U.S. citizen, should consult with an experienced immigration attorney before pleading guilty to an offense or moves forward with their criminal case.