Nonimmigrant Visas and Why Maintaining Status in the U.S. Is Important
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Note: The Law Offices of Larry L. Doan in Los Angeles, CA, provides the following blog article and other information on this site, including our responses to comments, for the purpose of legal information only; it is NOT legal advice nor does it create an attorney-client relationship.
Many people ask us what is a Nonimmigrant Visa? Isn’t everybody an immigrant to the United States? Well, no. Even though the media and everyday language tend to refer to everyone who comes to the U.S. as an “immigrant,” commonsense would dictate that that is not always the case. There are people who simply want to come here to visit for a while, or for another purpose such as going to school or work for a company for a period of time. For those people, the only way they can come to the U.S. legally is to be approved for a nonimmigrant visa at the U.S. consulate in their homeland.
These types of visas are always issued so that the person is allowed to stay for only a limited length of time in the U.S., never permanently. The period could be as short as a few months to as long as a few years, depending upon the purpose the person has in coming to the U.S. The problem is when people treat their nonimmigrant visa as a permanent visa. They begin to feel they can just stay here indefinitely. We actually get this quite often with clients who consult with us. Most of them of course know ahead of time they’re allowed to stay here for a limited length of time, yet many call us after their stay has expired because they assumed that an immigration lawyer would make everything alright. Well, usually we can help, but sometimes we cannot. After a person has overstayed, it is usually difficult to fix the problem or would be very costly to the client to fix, short of the client going back to their country.
Consequences of Overstaying Visa
What are the consequences of overstaying one’s nonimmigrant visa? First of all, you will not be allowed to extend status (get more time on your stay here), but must leave the U.S. and reapply for a new entry. Secondly, you’re not allowed to change status while in the U.S. to another nonimmigrant visa. Say you came here with a tourist visa to visit friends at an American college, but then decided you like the school so much you want to go there, too. You can apply to change status to a student visa if you do so before the end of your tourist stay (which on a tourist visa is usually 6 months). However, if you wait until after your stay has expired, you won’t be allowed to change status but must go back to your country and apply for a new student visa.
Or, say you’re here on a student visa pursuing a bachelor’s degree at an American university. Now, you’re graduating and have received a job offer at a U.S. high-tech company. You would need to obtain an H-1B visa in order to be allowed to work at your job. You can apply for change of status to H-1B if you do it prior to the end of the time allowed you as a student (usually 60 days after graduation or end of optional-practical-training work permit), but not after.
Another consequence of overstaying a nonimmigrant visa, which is very undesirable and can be disastrous, is the inability to adjust your status to permanent residence (not to be confused with “change of status” discussed above), as described below.
The worst consequence of overstaying is that an overstayer is subjected to removal (deportation) at any time. Whether they will actually be served papers to go to court for removal proceedings is another story (due to lack of resources on the part of Immigration & Customs Enforcement). But understand if a person is out-of-status, this could happen any time. Jan. 19, 2010 update: For example, see the comment of another reader whose brother overstayed a tourist visa for two years and thought he could continue to stay here, until one day the police or immigration agents came to his house to put him into deportation.
Extension & Change of Status
Extension of status or change of status (to another nonimmigrant visa type) while still in the U.S., when allowed, is obviously highly desirable since the person does not have to leave and reapply for a new entry or apply for the new type of visa at the U.S. consulate in that person’s country. He or she would apply with U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) here and await a decision while remaining in the U.S. This obviously saves time, money, and hassle.
Sometimes a person overstayed their nonimmigrant visa through no fault of their own. In those unusual situations, the immigration law does have a provision to excuse the overstay and the person can still apply for change of status. However, it is not always easy to prove that it was no fault of one’s own. The assistance of an experienced immigration lawyer is usually necessary in those cases.
Of course, a person who overstayed their visa can leave the U.S. and reapply for the new visa at the U.S. consulate in their country. However, at the visa interview, their overstay will be discovered and the visa probably denied. Or, if they try to come back to the U.S. on the original visa, usually the overstay will be discovered by the immigration officer at the airport, and that visa will be canceled and the person denied entry. Ouch!
By the way, the length of validity, or when the nonimmigrant visa expires, as printed on the visa itself, has nothing to do with the actual length of stay permitted by the immigration officer when a person arrives in the U.S. For example, many B-1/B-2 tourist visas have a 10-year expiration printed on them. That is simply the length of time the same visa can be used to apply for entry at the airport. The tourist will not be allowed, as some people mistakenly believe, to visit and stay in the U.S. for ten years! The immigration officer will give him or her 6 months in most cases because that’s the maximum length of initial stay on a tourist visa (it can be extended by another 6 months maximum while still in the U.S.). The officer will give the tourist a little slip called the I-94 with the red-ink expiration date that’s stapled to a page inside the passport and stamped with the final day of stay. Some nonimmigrant visas, such as the F-1 student visa, will receive the I-94 with the “D/S” notation, meaning that they are allowed to stay for the “duration of status,” or until the end of their educational program or other activities.
A nonimmigrant visa is like a contract or agreement. If you break the promise of complying with the terms of the agreement (by overstaying), you are penalized under the agreement. Instead of contractual damages, however, you are penalized by not being allowed to extend or change status or to return quickly to the U.S.
Serious Consequence of Overstaying: No Adjustment of Status to Green Card
Many nonimmigrant visa holders eventually are petitioned for a green card by a close family member who is a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident (LPR), or petitioned by a U.S. company for a green card while they’re in the U.S. The problem: unless they are being petitioned for as an immediate relative, overstaying by even one day will result in not being able to adjust to green-card status in the U.S., and they must go back to their own country for U.S. consulate processing. Most people, when they have a choice, would rather go through adjustment of status here rather than do consulate processing as it is obviously less costly and less time-consuming.
However, there is quite a large population of nonimmigrant visa holders who have overstayed by more than 180 days in the U.S. The problem is, even if they have an approved I-130 family petition and not classified as an immediate relative, as soon as they set foot outside the U.S. to go back to their homeland to apply (if they want a green card – there is no other way), the 3- or 10-year bar will kick in. As a result, they will not be approved by the consulate for the final visa to return to the U.S. for 3 or 10 years, unless they qualify for the extreme hardship waiver, which is not easy to get. This is a very risky situation. Only those non-immediate relatives who have I-130 petitions with priority dates (filed dates) on or before April 30, 2001 will be spared this return journey to their country and can adjust their status here.
Good News for Overstayers
The good news is that, as we described in “It’s Easy for Me to get a Green Card by Marrying My U.S. Citizen Boyfriend or Girlfriend, Right?”, by marrying a U.S. citizen in a bona fide marriage, even an overstayer can remain here and adjust their status to green card. Indeed, being a spouse of a U.S. citizen is one type of immediate relatives mentioned above. Perhaps because that option is so readily available, many people don’t take being out-of-status on their nonimmigrant visas too seriously since they know in the back of their minds they could always marry a citizen in the future.
Of course, a true and bona fide boyfriend or girlfriend may not be available at a given time because one is not in love! If that’s the case, such a person may continue to live in the U.S. out-of-status, which is not easy at all since he or she won’t be able to obtain a work permit or social security number legally. A person here on an expired work visa, such as an H-1B, might have had a social security number issued previously when he or she was working in legal status, but once they become out-of-status, although the SSN might still exist the person cannot legally obtain work authorization. Thus, people who have been out-of-status for a long time eventually get tired of living “underground” like this and call us for help on a marriage case. At that time, we are of course happy to help and explain the options available, especially the potential risk of having a marriage that does not appear real. But for the most part, people are sincere and have a genuine citizen spouse willing to help them and the process to get the green card is smooth.
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