When the U.S. Can Keep You Out

Learn why you may be denied entry to the United States and how to avoid being turned away.

For the protection of the United States, people with histories of criminal or terrorist activities, drug abuse, infectious medical problems, or certain other characteristics or behavior will never be allowed a visa, green card, or U.S. entry. In immigration law terms, these characteristics are known as the grounds of inadmissibility. Following is a list of the major categories of inadmissibility.

Major Grounds of Inadmissibility
Classes of InadmissibilityWaivers Available?
People with communicable diseases like tuberculosis and AIDSYes
People with physical or mental disordersYes
Drug abusers or addictsNo
Drug traffickersNo
People without proper vaccinationsYes
People with convictions for crimes involving moral turpitudeYes
ProstitutesYes
People with multiple criminal convictionsYes
SpiesNo
TerroristsNo
NazisNo
People likely to become dependent on welfareNo

Every person who applies to enter or stay in the United States, no matter how long the person plans to be there or whether he or she already has a green card, is checked to see whether he or she is inadmissible.

What Happens If You're Found Inadmissible

The various agencies handling your immigration-related applications may decide you are inadmissible any time you ask for permission to enter or stay in the United States. These agencies include the U.S. State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, through its subagencies Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS, formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service, or INS).

These agencies can use your inadmissibility to block you any time you try to cross the border, apply for a green card, or apply for any other type of visa or immigration status. If you're at a U.S. border when this occurs, you will be turned around and sent home. If you're in the United States, you will, if you have no other visa or status, be sent to immigration court for removal from the United States.

Even a permanent resident (green card holder) isn't safe from being found inadmissible. If a permanent resident departs the United States for more than 180 days, it's possible for him or her to be found inadmissible upon return. This situation might arise, for example, if the person had committed a crime, had developed HIV or tuberculosis, or had begun receiving public assistance since receiving the green card.

tip If you hold a green card, one way to avoid this problem is to apply for U.S. citizenship as soon as you're eligible. For more information on applying for citizenship, see Becoming a U.S. Citizen: A Guide to the Law, Exam, and Interview, by attorney Ilona Bray (Nolo).

Overcoming a Finding of Inadmissibility

Even if you fall into one of the categories of inadmissibility, you may not be absolutely barred from getting a green card or otherwise entering the United States. You may be able to get around the problem, for example if your illness can be cured or the doctor diagnosed you wrong, or the U.S. government made a mistake in your case and you aren't really inadmissible. If all of these fail, you may be able to apply for a waiver, meaning you ask the U.S. immigration authorities to overlook the problem and admit you anyway.

There are many technical factors that control whether you can overcome a finding of inadmissibility. For more on the grounds of inadmissibility and how to overcome them, see U.S. Immigration Made Easy, by Ilona Bray (Nolo). You may ultimately need to hire a good immigration lawyer.