When do you need an I-601 Waiver due to criminal grounds (and how do you get it)?

Certain criminal offenses bar you from adjusting to permanent resident status or from entering the U.S. as a permanent resident or an immigrant, K-3 nonimmigrant, or K-1 fiancé(e) visa holder.

To overcome crime-related bars to reentry, prospective immigrants or permanent residents seeking admission to the U.S. must file for and receive an I-601 waiver when available under section 212(h) of the Immigration & Nationality Act. If the I-601 waiver is granted, you may then adjust status, enter the U.S. on an immigrant, K-3 or K-1 visa, or be admitted as a permanent resident.


When Are You Inadmissible Due to Criminal and Related Grounds [INA§ 212(a)(2)]? 

Crime-related grounds of inadmissibility are permanent bars to adjusting to permanent residence within the U.S., obtaining a visa for entry to the U.S., or being lawfully admitted to the U.S.

Crime Involving Moral Turpitude

Section 212(a)(2)(A) (i)(I) of the Immigration & Nationality Act (INA) states foreign nationals are inadmissible to the U.S. if they have been convicted of – or admit to committing – (at least) one Crime Involving Moral Turpitude (CIMT), other than a purely political offense.

Even when there is no conviction, there is a valid admission of a crime when the USCIS officer or U.S. consular officer follows formal procedures to obtain it, including placing the applicant under oath and having him admit to all the key elements of the crime.

A CIMT involves engaging in morally reprehensible and intrinsically wrong conduct with willful, reckless, or malicious intent. Examples are crimes against a person (aggravated battery, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, statutory rape); crimes against property (shoplifting, theft, fraud, forgery, robbery); sexual and family crimes (e.g. child abuse, aggravated domestic assault); and crimes against the government (e.g. bribery, counterfeiting, willful tax evasion).

You are not inadmissible due to a CIMT when you qualify for:

1. the petty offense exception, where you committed only one CIMT ever, the CIMT has a potential sentence of one year or less, and a sentence of six months or less was imposed ; OR

2. the youthful offender exception, where you committed only one CIMT while under age 18, and at least five years have passed since your conviction and release from jail.

Controlled Substance Violation

Section 212(a)(2)(A) (i)(II) of the INA states that foreign nationals are inadmissible if they violated (or conspired or attempted to violate) any law or regulation of a State, the United States, or a foreign country relating to a controlled substance, as defined in section 802 of Title 21. To be subject to this permanent bar, the person must be convicted of or admit to the essential elements of a controlled substance violation.

On a medical examination report, in connection with a green card or immigrant visa application, a person may acknowledge to a civil surgeon or a panel physician that he or she has used a controlled substance, which the physician then may annotate on the medical documentation. While this acknowledgement, by itself, is not a valid admission to a controlled substance violation, it opens a line of questioning to determine criminal inadmissibility.

Arrests and charges for controlled substance violations – even when there is no conviction or guilty plea –  also usually results in further questioning at the green card or immigrant visa interview.

As with obtaining a valid admission to a CIMT, a USCIS officer or U.S. consular officer may place the applicant under oath and use certain procedures to procure a formal admission to a controlled substance violation.

Multiple Criminal Convictions

Section 212(a)(2)(B) of the INA states that foreign nationals are inadmissible to if they are convicted of 2 or more offenses (other than purely political offenses), regardless of whether the conviction was in a single trial or whether the offense arose from a single scheme of misconduct, and regardless of whether the offenses involved moral turpitude, for which the aggregate sentences to confinement were 5 years or more.

Controlled Substance Traffickers

Section 212(a)(2)(C) of the INA bars foreign nationals who the U.S. consular officer or U.S government knows or has reason to believe is a controlled substance trafficker. This includes a person who:

1. is or has been an illicit trafficker in any controlled substance listed in section 802 of Title 21, or is or has been a knowing aider, abettor, assister, conspirator, or colluder with others in the illicit trafficking in any such controlled substance.


2. is the spouse, son, or daughter of a person inadmissible as an illicit trafficker, has obtained financial or other benefit from the illicit activity within the last 5 years, and knew or reasonably should have known that the financial or or other benefit resulted from such illicit activity.

Prostitution and Commercialized Vice

Section 212(a)(2)(D)(i) of the INA states that foreign nationals are inadmissible if they are coming to the U.S. solely, principally, or incidentally to engage in prostitution, or have engaged in prostitution within 10 years of the date of application for a visa, admission, or adjustment of status.

Section 212(a)(2)(D)(ii) of the INA adds that foreign nationals are inadmissible if they directly or indirectly procure or attempt to procure, or (within 10 years of the date of application for a visa, admission, or adjustment of status) procured or attempted to procure or to import, prostitutes or persons for the purpose of prostitution, or receive or (within such 10-year period) received the proceeds of prostitution.

Section 212(a)(2)(D)(iii) of the INA further bars foreign nationals who are coming to the U.S. to engage in any other unlawful commercialized vice, whether or not related to prostitution.

Certain Aliens Involved in Serious Criminal Activity Who Have Asserted Immunity from Prosecution

Under section 212(a)(2)(E) of the INA, a foreign national:

(i) who has committed in the United States at any time a serious criminal offense (as defined in section 101(h) of the INA – i.e. any felony, any crime of violence, and any crime of reckless driving or of driving while intoxicated or under the influence of alcohol or prohibited substances if such crime involves personal injury to another),

(ii) for whom immunity from criminal jurisdiction was exercised with respect to that offense,

(iii) who as a consequence of the offense and exercise of immunity has departed from the United States, and

(iv) who has not subsequently submitted fully to the jurisdiction of the court in the United States having jurisdiction with respect to that offense,

is inadmissible.

Foreign Government Officials Who Committed Particularly Severe Violations of Religious Freedom

Under section 212(a)(2)(G) of the INA, a person who, while serving as a foreign government official, was responsible for or carried out particularly severe violations of religious freedom is inadmissible.

Significant Traffickers in Persons

Under section 212(a)(2)(H) of the INA, a person who commits or conspires to commit human trafficking offenses in or outside the U.S., or who the U.S. government knows or has reason to believe is or has been a knowing aider, abettor, assister, conspirator, or colluder with such a trafficker in severe human trafficking, is inadmissible.

A spouse, son or daughter of a human trafficker, who has, within the previous 5 years, benefited from the illicit activity, or knew or should have known that he benefit was the product of such illicit activity, is also inadmissible. One exception is if the son or daughter was a child at the time he or she received the benefit.

Money Laundering

Section 212(a)(2)(I) of the INA states that a person who the U.S. government knows, or has reason to believe, has engaged, is engaging, or seeks to enter the U.S. to engage, in money laundering is inadmissible. A person who the U.S. government knows is, or has been, a knowing aider, abettor, assister, conspirator, or colluder with others in money laundering, is also inadmissible.

When Do You Need an I-601 [INA § 212(h)] Waiver Due to Criminal and Related Grounds? 

Intended immigrants and permanent residents need an I-601 waiver under section 212(h) of the INA when they are barred from admission to the U.S. due to the following criminal grounds:

1. Crimes involving moral turpitude

2. One controlled substance violation involving simple possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana (or an equivalent amount of hashish)

3. Two or more criminal convictions (other than purely political ones) with an aggregate sentence imposed of at least five years

4. Prostitution

5. Unlawful commercialized vice, whether or not related to prostitution

6. Certain aliens involved in serious crimes who have asserted immunity from prosecution

When you are inadmissible due to crime-related grounds, you need the INA 212(h) waiver to get a green card, an immigrant visa, or a K visa to enter the U.S. or to be lawfully admitted to the U.S. as a permanent resident.

What are the Limitations of the I-601 [INA § 212(h)] Waiver?

The I-601 waiver under section 212(h) of the INA has several limitations:

It is not available for all crime-related grounds of inadmissibility. The I-601 waiver is unavailable to persons who are deemed inadmissible under sections:

1. 212(a)(2)(A)(i)(II)[Controlled Substance Violation] – except when it relates to one single offense of simple possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana (or hashish); or

2. 212(a)(2)(C)[Controlled Substance Traffickers]

3. 212(a)(2)(G)[Foreign government officials who committed particularly severe violations of religious freedom]

4. 212(a)(2)(H)[Significant traffickers in persons/human traffickers]

5. 212(a)(2)(I)[Money laundering]

(NOTE TO NONIMMIGRANTS: A special authorization for admission as a nonimmigrant for crime-related grounds is available under section 212(d)(3)(A) of the INA. Whether you qualify for the nonimmigrant visa itself is a separate issue.)

It is not available to certain foreign nationals. The waiver cannot be granted, as a matter of discretion, to:

1. A foreign national who has been convicted of, or admitted committing murder or criminal acts involving torture, or an attempt or conspiracy to commit murder or a criminal act involving torture.

2. A foreign national who was granted permanent residence and failed to accrue at least seven years of lawful continuous residence in the U.S. before receiving a Notice to Appear in removal proceedings.

[NOTE: On May 12, 2015, the Board of Immigration Appeals issued a decision, Matter of J-H-J, 26 I&N Dec. 563 (BIA 2015), stating that a person who adjusted to permanent resident status in the U.S. and who did not enter the country as an LPR is not barred from establishing 212(h) eligibility as a result of an aggravated felony conviction.   Based on this BIA decision, only those who entered the U.S. as LPRs and thereafter are convicted of an aggravated felony are prohibited from applying for a 212(h)waiver.]


It does not waive prior removal orders and multiple illegal entries. The I-601 waiver does not cover the 5-year, 10-year, and 20-year bar due to prior removal orders. It also does not cover permanent bars caused by multiple unlawful entries into the U.S. To overcome such grounds of inadmissibility, you need to qualify for, seek and obtain an I-212 waiver by filing a Form I-212, Application for Permission to Reapply for Admission into the United States after Deportation or Removal .

It is not usually a stand-alone application. To obtain a section 212(h) waiver, the person must be applying or reapplying for adjustment of status, for a visa, or for admission to the United States. The section 212(h) waiver request is usually filed in conjunction with an I-485, adjustment of status application or an immigrant, K-3 or K-1 visa application.

One situation that allows a stand-alone request is when a permanent resident leaves the U.S. and is then charged as inadmissible, due to crime-related grounds, upon request for re-entry. Permanent residents who commit criminal offenses that make them inadmissible do not receive automatic re-entry to the U.S. Instead, they may file a stand-alone § 212(h) waiver in removal proceedings to retain their status. Stand-alone § 212(h) waivers may also be filed by immigrant visa holders, in which case, the waiver must be granted retroactively (nunc pro tunc) to make the visa valid.

Under the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) of 1996, lawful permanent residents (green card holders) who depart the U.S. and seek re-entry are generally not regarded as seeking admission and are thus not subject to INA 212 inadmissibility grounds. But when any of the six exceptions under INA § 101(a)(13)(C) applies, permanent residents are subject to being denied admission to the U.S. One is when the permanent resident has committed a criminal offense listed in section 212(a)(2) (including crimes of moral turpitude, drug trafficking, or prostitution), except if since such offense the person has been granted an INA 212(h) waiver or Cancellation of Removal for Certain Permanent Residents under INA  240A(a).

A permanent resident who is inadmissible under section 212(a)(2) is normally paroled into the U.S. as an arriving alien seeking admission and then placed in removal proceedings to respond to charges of inadmissibility under INA 212 (or charges of removability under INA 237). Parole allows a person, who may be inadmissible or otherwise ineligible for admission into the United States, to be paroled into the United States for a temporary period.

A permanent resident may request a stand-alone section 212(h) waiver — without reapplying for a visa or adjustment of status —  if he is presently requesting admission into the United States. This means he has to to be paroled into the country and referred to the Immigration Court as an arriving alien seeking admission. If the waiver (or other relief) is denied in removal proceedings, the permanent resident status is revoked and the Immigration Court may issue a removal order or a voluntary departure grant.

Who Qualifies for the I-601 [INA § 212(h)] Waiver?

You qualify for the I-601 waiver [§ 212(h) waiver] if you are one of the following:

1. An immigrant who has a U.S. citizen or permanent resident spouse, parent, son or daughter who will suffer extreme hardship if you are not admitted to the U.S.

2. A self-petitioning abused spouse or child of a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).

3. Inadmissible only under prostitution grounds [sections 212(D)(i) or (D)(ii) of the INA]; you have been rehabilitated; and your admission is not contrary to the national welfare, safety, or security to the United States.

4. Inadmissible due to certain criminal activities (e.g. a crime involving moral turpitude; single offense of simple possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana) that occurred more than 15 years before the date of application for a visa, admission, or adjustment of status; you have been rehabilitated; and your admission is not contrary to the national welfare, safety, or security of the United States.

Being eligible for the I-601 waiver does not necessarily mean you will get it.  As with other waivers available under the INA, §212(h) waivers are granted in the exercise of discretion. In addition to meeting the statutory requirements, you must present evidence showing the positive factors outweigh the negative factors in their case. Even if you are eligible for the waiver, the agency may still deny the request as a matter of discretion.

If you are convicted of a violent or dangerous crime, you must demonstrate “extraordinary circumstances,” such as national security or foreign policy considerations, or that the denial of admission would result in “exceptional or extremely unusual hardship.” Even if this higher standard is met, the agency may still deny the request as a matter of discretion.

Where Do You File An I-601 [INA § 212(h)] Waiver Application? 

The §212(h) waiver request is filed on a Form I-601, either with the USCIS office that is adjudicating the adjustment of status application, the U.S. Consulate that conducted the visa interview, or the Immigration Court (if you are in removal proceedings and filing for adjustment of status OR requesting admission as a permanent resident who was paroled into the U.S.).

The filing address for the I-601 application depends on whether you are:

An adjustment of status applicant who is filing or has already filed the I-485 application with USCIS;

An immigrant visa or K-3/K-1 nonimmigrant visa applicant who was found inadmissible by the U.S. Consulate at the visa interview; or

A VAWA self-petitioner seeking an immigrant visa or adjustment of status.

Direct filing addresses for the I-601 are available on the USCIS website.


Getting an I-601 waiver for criminal grounds involves more than just submitting the form and documents listed in the instructions. You must also show USCIS how you qualify for the waiver and deserve it as a matter of discretion. An experienced immigration attorney can help you maximize your chance for approval by presenting a legal brief and explaining how you meet the eligibility requirements.

For more information on what to submit with your application and why having an immigration attorney helps, read our related article, What should you to do get an I-601 waiver for criminal grounds? 


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: Mark Morgan

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