Saturday, May 21, 2011

Tips for Improving Your Chances of Getting Cleared by US Customs at an Airport

1) Be honest, upfront, and polite with the Customs & Border Protection (CBP) agents. They are trained to detect when you are lying so don’t even try, it will only hurt you. Being upfront with the agents is especially in your interest because during the admission process at the border/point of entry they are the only people who can help you. You have no right to an attorney during this time. The CBP agents have a certain amount of discretion and you want to make sure that they will feel inclined to exercise it with you, if necessary, to admit you to the US.

2) Make sure you bring detailed documents with you to present to the CBP. This means more than simply your visa. Most importantly, non-immigrant visitors need to show reasonable ties and equities to and in their home country. This means you need to have documentation showing employment, family, and social ties to a residence abroad, and adequate financing arrangements to carry out the purpose of your visit.

If you are traveling to the US for an employer, make sure you have a letter from the employer detailing the purpose of your visit and the activities you will engage in during the visit. Remember, the burden is on you to prove that you are not inadmissible to the US. (No criminal convictions, prior immigration law violations, etc.) In general, this means you need to show that you have proper documentation and the requisite intent for the type of visa for which you applied. Common sense applies here. For example, if you are coming to the US for a three-day conference on a B-1 visa but your return ticket isn’t until 90 days later, you can expect that this will raise a red flag for CBP.

3) Make sure that you have a good phone number for the employer sponsoring you or the employer’s immigration attorney, or, if visiting family or friends, then the family meeting you, or your own immigration attorney. It’s best to have both a regular phone number and cell number for one or more of these people. CBP may call them to help answer questions that the agents have about your situation. Having the phone number of someone who is knowledgeable about your situation and available can make the difference between having to withdraw your application for admission and fly back to your country of origin the same day or being admitted to the US.

4) If you are offered the choice to voluntarily withdraw your application for admission because CBP does not believe you are telling the truth or you do not have proper documentation and they are unable to contact anyone that can clarify your situation (and you do not have a credible fear of returning to your own country or an asylum claim), it is always preferable to accept this offer rather than force CBP to use the alternative, which is expedited removal.

If you have committed visa fraud, and/or made misrepresentations starting back with the US consulate in your home country--this does not apply to asylum cases--then you can expect that CBP will order an expedited removal. This means you will be returned to your home country (or country of last embarkation) with no hearing and a permanent bar from returning to the US. (If CBP issues an expedited removal order for simply lack of documentation, there is only a five-year bar to returning.) In most cases, you will be put on the next flight back, using your return ticket if possible. The air carrier is liable to the US government to return anyone who is inadmissible, so most likely you will be sent back on the same carrier, or a code share partner. And, even though the carrier must fly you back, it will certainly look to you to pay the cost of the ticket.

An important note about the expedited removal power: an expedited removal order under INA 212(a)(6)(C) is for fraud and misrepresentation, and results in a LIFETIME bar from re-entry to the US. An expedited removal order issued under INA 212(a)(7) is for lack of documentation and results in a 5 year bar to re-entry. Not surprisingly, it is much harder to get a waiver to return to the US if you were removed under the (a)(6) ground than (a)(7).

The bottom line is that the best way to improve your chances of getting cleared by US Customs at the airport is to make sure you are traveling on the correct visa, bring copies of the appropriate documentation with you, bring phone numbers for contacts in the US who are available to speak to CBP to address any problems that may arise, and, above all, be honest!

If you have any concerns about you or a family member traveling to the US, consider consulting with an immigration attorney that is knowledgeable about CBP procedures. Advance planning can go a long way to improve the chances of CBP clearing you or your family member and admitting them to the US.

Also, frequent international travelers—non-citizens and US citizens alike—should apply for the CBP’s Global Entry program, which allows you to enter the US using automated kiosks at the airport.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Religious Worker Path to a Green Card

If you work for a recognized religious organization, either as a minister or a religious worker, you might qualify for a green card as a special immigrant. You can apply for your green card as a minister or religious worker from inside the U.S.—if you are in lawful status and not working without authorization—or from abroad. You start the process by filing an I-360 petition on your own or through your employer. Whether you or your employer files the petition, the prospective U.S. employer must submit certain documentary evidence, including an attestation showing that certain requirements have been met regarding the organization, its history of filing this type of petition and the position and salary.

Now, the immigration regulations define a “minister” as someone who is fully authorized by a religious denomination to conduct religious activities, such as a minister, priest, rabbi, imam, ordained deacon, or Buddhist monk. A “religious worker” is defined as someone who is in a religious vocation or occupation and is authorized to perform normal religious duties, such as religious instructors, religious counselors, missionaries, religious broadcasters, workers in religious hospitals and cantors. Purely non-religious workers and volunteers are not included in this definition. Over the years the regulations defining religious occupations have changed and there has been litigation over varying interpretations. Someone attempting to immigrate under this category would be well advised to consult with an immigration attorney about their specific circumstances.

To qualify for a green card as a minister or religious worker, for at least 2 years immediately before filing the visa petition, you must have been a member of a religious denomination that has a bona fide, nonprofit, religious organization in the U.S.

Also, you must be seeking to come to the U.S. to work full time (35 hours) in a paid position, purely to carry on your vocation as a minister or to work for a bona fide, nonprofit religious organization in the U.S. or its affiliate in the U.S.

Finally, you must have been working as a minister or religious worker—abroad or lawfully in the U.S.—for at least 2 years immediately prior to filing the visa petition. (There can be breaks in the 2-year period but only in certain situations. And, unauthorized employment during the 2-year period stops the 2-years from accruing but it can be restarted again.)

Because of a recent court decision, immigrants can no longer file both the visa petition for a special immigrant visa as a religious worker and the green card application at the same time. This applies specifically to the religious worker classification. Currently, any green card application (I-485) that is based on a special immigrant petition (I-360) for a special immigrant religious worker must be filed only after you have an approved I-360 petition.

In addition, currently, all religious workers (not ministers) must enter the U.S. with a valid immigrant visa or adjust to permanent resident status (have an approved I-485) before September 30, 2012. This date might be extended in the future, but this is the current law.