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.