— By Susan E. Hill, October 5, 2016
Only U.S. citizens are guaranteed entry to the U.S. when applying to cross the border. For everyone else there is no guarantee, and noncitizens can be questioned about the purpose of their visit. Lawful permanent residents (green card holders) are in a different category, so this questioning applies to people with a visa, ESTA/visa waiver, a border crossing card, or any other document.
If you are not a U.S. citizen or a lawful permanent resident, you should always be prepared for heavy scrutiny and be aware of what you carry with you. Even if you enter at a non-conventional Port of Entry (such as a cargo terminal), be prepared.
U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (USCBP) not only screens for terrorists, but they also screen visa holders and ESTA/visa waiver applicants to ensure they will comply with their immigration status inside the U.S. Here are some common things that USCBP looks at:
- Intent to work unlawfully: Visa Waiver (ESTA) and visitor visas do not allow you to work. “Work” means doing any activity—whether you get paid or not—that a U.S. person or business normally would need to hire an American to do. Examples could include exercising horses for a horse trainer, organizing documents for a business, helping a nonprofit raise money. Many people who are coming to “help” a friend can get caught at the border and accused of seeking to work and take away a job from an American.
- Intent to overstay the I-94 visa/admission period: For example, if you have a U.S. citizen spouse or fiancé(e), or if you recently gave up your foreign home and belongings, USCBP could assume you will overstay and apply for a green card.
- Visa fraud or misuse: If you do not currently qualify for the visa that you have, or if the purpose of your visit is contrary to your visa type. Examples include a student visa but you are not enrolled in school, or a work visa but you have quit the job.
Everything you carry can be searched, even your phone/laptop. USCBP has the power to look at your belongings, including what’s inside your purse or wallet, and they can look at your phone and laptop: your text messages, your emails, your social media and your contacts. Some dispute whether USCBP has such broad power, but there is no official law against it.
If USCBP sees something inconsistent with the stated purpose of your trip, then you risk being denied entry. For example, a tourist carrying U.S. business cards related to their occupation, and multiple romantic texts with a U.S. phone number could be interpreted as someone seeking to work in the U.S. and to marry a U.S. citizen. These are reasons for USCBP to deny entry and, if serious enough, you could be issued an expedited removal order that prevents you from returning for a period of five years or longer.
Once you are admitted to the U.S., make a copy of any passport stamp and any paper I-94 you may receive. Check your electronic I-94 at www.cbp.gov and make sure it is correct, then print out or save a copy. Keep these records always, because you never know when you may need them to prove your lawful entry on this date.