Foreign nationals who enter the U.S. on a B-1/B-2 visitor visa or on the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) may file for their green card within the U.S. – instead of apply for their immigrant visa aboard – if they fit in the Immediate Relatives category. A common example is when the person enters into a bona fide marriage to a U.S. citizen following entry to the U.S. as a visitor. But the green card applicant’s true intentions when he applied for the visitor visa (or ESTA) or requested entry in visitor status may be called into question.
The visitor visa and VWP program allow foreign nationals to enter the U.S. for tourism or business for a temporary period. Using the visitor visa or VWP to enter the U.S. with the specific intent of immigrating to the U.S. carries risks and consequences.
Overstaying their non-immigrant status in the U.S., in and of itself, does not prevent immediate relatives from adjusting to permanent resident status. Immediate relatives include the U.S. citizen’s spouse, children under age 21, and parents (if the U.S. citizen is 21 or older). In addition, a general desire to immigrate is generally fine. Problems, however, arise when there is willful misrepresentation about the purpose of the trip.
What are the risks and consequences of the visitor-to-green card holder option?
1. Foreign national may be charged with fraud or willful misrepresentation to obtain immigration benefits
Immigration authorities expect fiancé(e)s of U.S. citizens to apply for a K-1 visa and spouses, parents and minor children of U.S. citizens to apply for an immigrant visa at the U.S. Consulate abroad, rather than enter the U.S. as a visitor and then apply for a marriage-based green card.
The U.S. Department of State adopted a 30/60 day rule when a foreign national violates his nonimmigrant status. When a foreign national marries a U.S. citizen and takes up residency in the United States within 30 days of entry, the DOS presumes that he misrepresented his intent in seeking a visitor visa or entry. If the marriage or green card application occurred after 30 days but within 60 days of entry, the DOS does not presume there was misrepresentation. But if the facts provide a reasonable basis to believe the foreign national misrepresented his intent, the DOS allows him to present rebuttal evidence. If the marriage or green card application occurred after 60 days, the DOS does not consider such conduct to constitute fraud or willful misrepresentation to obtain immigration benefits.
USCIS is a separate agency from the DOS and the Board of Immigration Appeals has held that immediate relatives are exempt from the 30/60 day rule. In other words, immediate relatives of U.S. citizens who wish to apply for adjustment of status may do so at any time, even within 30 days of entry into the U.S.
[See updates below regarding the switch from 30/60 day rule to 90 day rule.]
Nevertheless, USCIS is often persuaded by and frequently follows the DOS policy. During the adjustment of status process, USCIS may find that the applicant misused the visitor visa or VWP by claiming to be a mere visitor at the U.S. port of entry, when in fact he intended to remain in the U.S. and file for a marriage-based green card.
USCIS might be especially suspicious if you get married or apply for a green card within 30 to 60 days of entering the U.S. They might overlook this conduct or you might be able to convince the USCIS officer that you decided to marry or apply for a green card only after you arrived in the U.S.
If USCIS is not convinced by your explanation, it will deny your marriage-based green card application on the basis of immigration fraud or misrepresentation, unless you qualify for and receive an I-601 waiver of inadmissibility. (To obtain an I-601 waiver, applicants must show a qualifying relative – i.e. U.S. citizen or permanent resident spouse or parent – would suffer extreme hardships if they are not granted the green card and allowed to stay in the U.S.)
At the U.S. port of entry, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer may also question the visitor visa holder or VWP entrant about the purpose of his visit. If you truthfully inform the customs officer that you are coming to the U.S. to get married or visit your U.S. citizen fiancé(e), he could find that you have no intent to leave the U.S. before your authorized stay expires. The officer may then issue an expedited removal order or request that you withdraw your application for admission into the U.S. In some cases, your visitor visa may be cancelled or revoked and you may be barred from using the VWP.
It can be tempting to just tell the U.S. Consulate or customs officer that you are only coming to the U.S. for a temporary visit, when in fact you intend to engage in other conduct that reflects immigrant intent. While preconceived intent to immigrate to the U.S. does not bar immediate relatives from adjusting to permanent resident status, fraud or willful misrepresentation to obtain immigration benefits does.
2. Foreign national is subject to removal from the U.S.
Although overstaying the B-1/B-2 or VWP authorized period does not bar adjustment of status, it does make the foreign national removable from the U.S. The maximum period of stay in B-1/B-2 status is typically 6 months. The maximum period of stay on the VWP is 90 days.
When the foreign national remains in the U.S. following expiration of the B-1/B-2 authorized period, he is subject to being placed in removal proceedings due to the overstay. Because VWP entrants waive their right to contest any action for removal, except when applying for asylum, they may be ordered removed without being referred to an Immigration Judge.
The filing of an I-485 application tolls unlawful presence, but does not provide any lawful status. If the adjustment application is denied and the person is not maintaining any nonimmigrant status, he is not only subject to removal, but also begins to accrue unlawful presence.
Departure from the U.S. after accruing more than 180 days to less than 1 year of unlawful presence in the U.S. triggers a 3-year bar from the U.S. The bar is 10 years if the unlawful presence lasted for 1 year or more. To obtain an immigrant visa prior to when the 3/10 year bar expires, the foreign national must first receive an I-601 waiver of inadmissibility. A foreign national who was ordered removed from the U.S. would also need to obtain advance permission to re-enter the U.S. by filing a Form I-212 application (unless the 5, 10 or 20-year bar, resulting from the removal order, has passed).
Visa fraud (misusing the visitor visa or VWP to gain entry into the U.S.) is also grounds for removal from the U.S. Instead of being granted a green card, the foreign national who entered on a visitor visa may end up in removal proceedings, and the VWP entrant may be issued an expedited removal order, if they are found to have committed visa fraud.
When does the visitor-to-green card holder option work best?
1. Foreign national met the U.S. citizen spouse or began committed relationship after he entered the U.S.
In many cases, foreign nationals meet their U.S. citizen spouses-to-be or enter into a committed relationship or get engaged only after they arrive in the U.S. on a visitor’s visa or on the VWP, either during the authorized stay or after the authorized stay expired.
A bona fide marriage between the U.S. citizen and foreign national allows the couple to file a one-step application with USCIS (i.e. US citizen files I-130 immigrant petition and foreign national files I-485 application for adjustment of status, concurrently.) Upon entry, the foreign national might have a general desire to remain in the U.S., but no specific plans to immigrate because he had yet to meet or become engaged to the U.S. citizen spouse.
The longer the time period between the visitor visa or VWP entry and the filing of the green card application, the easier it is for the foreign national to prove he did not commit fraud or willful misrepresentation to gain entry into the U.S.
2. Foreign national is undecided about immigrating to the U.S. at the time of entry to the U.S.
Entering the U.S. on a visitor visa or on the VWP to spend time with a U.S. citizen petitioner is a permissible activity. It is possible for a person to enter the U.S. in visitor status to maintain a long-distance relationship with a U.S. citizen fiancé(e), or to get married to the U.S. citizen – as long as the intent is to timely depart the U.S. before the authorized stay ends.
Not all foreign nationals want to immigrate to the United States. Some are from developed countries or run successful businesses or hold lucrative professions in their home countries that they do not want to relinquish.
Fraud or willful misrepresentation occurs when you intend to remain in the U.S. permanently, but you tell the consular officer or customs officer that you are coming to the U.S. for a temporary visit. In general, silence or failure to volunteer negative information that is not specifically requested does not amount to fraud or willful misrepresentation.
Due to the 30/60 day rule, it is best to wait to file the marriage-based green card application at least 91 days after entry on a visitor visa or on the VWP. If the application is made after 90 days, USCIS normally assumes the foreign national acted in good faith and was undecided about immigrating to the U.S.
[UPDATE, August 1, 2017: The DOS replaced the 30/60 day rule with the 90-day rule, which establishes a presumption of willful misrepresentation “if an alien violates or engages in conduct inconsistent with his or her nonimmigrant status within 90 days of entry.” If such actions occur within 90 days of entry, a consular officer “may presume that the applicant’s representations about engaging in only status-compliant activity were willful misrepresentations of his or her intention in seeking a visa or entry.]
[UPDATE, September 10, 2021: The DOS updated its policy on the 90-day rule: If an individual engages in conduct inconsistent with their nonimmigrant status within 90 days of visa application or admission to the United States, the officer may presume the applicant made a willful misrepresentation. The officer must provide the applicant with the opportunity to rebut the presumption of misrepresentation. Inconsistent conduct includes the visitor marrying a United States citizen or LPR and taking up residence in the United States. Examples of taking up residence are applicant signing a long-term lease or mortgage, having utility bills, and obtaining a local driver’s license.]”
Keep in mind that USCIS considers other evidence when determining your true intentions upon entry into the U.S. For example, to prove the bona fide nature of your marriage, you may submit letters, emails and other correspondences proving your premarital courtship. If any of these correspondences show you planned to marry and remain permanently in the U.S. following entry as a visitor, USCIS could find that you misused the visitor visa or VWP and thus deny your green card application.
Consult an Immigration Attorney to Help You Determine Your Best Immigration Option
Although filing for a marriage-based green card following entry to the U.S. as a visitor is quite common, there are risks and consequences involved in this process.
Applying for a K-1 fiancé(e) visa, K-3 nonimmigrant visa, or immigrant visa at the U.S. Consulate abroad instead of entering the U.S. on a visitor visa – when the intent is to immigrate to the U.S. – is normally more appropriate.
If you are already in the U.S. and have concerns about proving your good faith non-immigrant intent upon entry into the U.S., you could leave the U.S. before your authorized stay expires and apply for the appropriate visa abroad. And if you leave the U.S. after your authorized stay expires, and you accumulated at least 180 days of unlawful presence prior to your departure, you will trigger the 3/10-year bar. In that event, you will need to obtain an I-601 waiver of inadmissibility to obtain the immigrant visa before the 3/10-year bar expires.
Consult an experienced immigration attorney to help you determine your best visa option and immigration route based on marriage to a U.S. citizen.
This article provides general information only. It is based on law, regulations and policy that are subject to change. Do not consider it as legal advice for any individual case or situation. Each legal case is different and case examples do not constitute a prediction or guarantee of success or failure in any other case. The sharing or receipt of this information does not create an attorney-client relationship.
Photo by: Theophilos Papadopoulos