Being in the United States on a green card or visa has likely provided you with many opportunities and privileges. Whether you are here with family, working your way through college or you plan to become a U.S. citizen, the process you went through to get here was undoubtedly challenging and frustrating, but worth it.
However, your position here is fragile, and you are under special scrutiny because of your temporary status. In fact, it may be helpful for you to understand that the laws to which you are subject can be harsher than the laws for American citizens, and the penalties for even seemingly small infractions can have life-changing consequences.
When a felony is not a felony
You probably know that it's not a good idea to commit a crime while you carry a green card or stay here on a visa. A felony conviction may result in almost certain deportation, depending on the circumstances. However, for immigrants, the definition of felony may not be the same as for a citizen. Under immigration law, the term 'aggravated felony' applies to crimes Congress has determined are worthy of your deportation.
While the list includes crimes like murder and drug dealing, it also contains less serious offenses, for example:
- Failing to appear when summoned to court
- Lying on a tax return
These crimes may be only misdemeanors if a citizen commits them, but if you are a foreign national, conviction for any of these may lead to your deportation.
Additionally, lawmakers have not clearly defined what makes a crime an aggravated felony, and, at any time, Congress may decide to add another offense to the list. If you have already been convicted of a crime that is not on the list of aggravated felonies and Congress adds it to the list, you may then be retroactively deportable.
Depending on your status at the time of your arrest for an aggravated felony, you may face different consequences. For example, if you are a legal permanent resident, immigration authorities may detain you while you go through the deportation procedure. Refugees face deportation for a criminal conviction even if it means they must return to a country where their lives are in danger.
Of course, if authorities deport you because of an aggravated felony conviction, they will likely bar you from ever returning to the U.S. This could mean separation from beloved family members, loss of opportunities and return to a country that may be altogether unfamiliar to you. To avoid this, it is crucial to seek legal assistance at the first instance you are faced with arrest for any crime, no matter how inconsequential it may seem.