Keeping You Out of the United States: Grounds for Inadmissibility

In a Nutshell

The U.S. has special laws that dictate who may enter or stay in the country. These laws list reasons you may be barred from entering the country as an immigrant. If you’re already in the U.S., these laws may allow you to be deported. These reasons are often referred to as “grounds for inadmissibility,” and many exist. But even if one or more grounds for inadmissibility apply to you, you can still stay or enter the U.S. in certain situations. This article provides an overview of the grounds for inadmissibility. It also discusses exceptions and waivers to inadmissibility.

Written by Jonathan Petts

What Is Inadmissibility?

If you commit certain actions that violate the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), you may not be able to enter or stay in the United States. Formally, this is called inadmissibility. You may also be found inadmissible if the U.S. government finds that you pose a threat to U.S. national security, public health, or public safety. Section 212 of the INA outlines the complete list of reasons why an immigrant might be inadmissible.

The U.S. government uses inadmissibility to protect existing U.S. citizens. The U.S. Department of State and U.S. Department of Homeland Security are tasked with preventing harmful immigration. Applicants with histories of crime, previous immigration violations, drug abuse, terrorism, and contagious medical diseases are likely to be found inadmissible. This means they can’t get immigration status or enter the U.S. legally.

What Happens When Someone Is Deemed Inadmissible?

When you cross a port of entry or apply for a new status, immigrant visa, or nonimmigrant visa, the U.S. government will review your eligibility. During this review, the agency deciding your case can flag you as inadmissible. 

If you are inadmissible and trying to cross the border, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will deny you entry into the United States. They may send you back home or to removal proceedings at an immigration court. If you’re applying for a new status or visa, USCIS or the State Department can also block your application.

If you are illegally present in the United States, you may face deportation. Even if you are lawfully present in the United States, you’ll face consequences for your grounds for inadmissibility. You may face a removal proceeding or have your green card application denied.

Common Grounds for Inadmissibility

Section 212 of the INA sets out many different reasons, or grounds,  for inadmissibility. Some grounds result from an applicant’s illegal or dangerous actions. Others can result from circumstances beyond your control. Before reading on, you should note that the U.S. government does make certain exceptions for inadmissible applicants. 

Depending on the specific status you apply for, the U.S. government may automatically waive certain grounds. Additionally, USCIS is sometimes willing to waive inadmissibility for humanitarian reasons.

Inadmissibility Due to Health Concerns 

Many immigration benefit applications require you to submit results from a medical examination. The U.S. government uses this exam to determine whether you carry any infectious diseases or lack any necessary vaccinations. They will also use it to screen for substance abuse, physical disorders, and mental disorders. 

Communicable Disease

Having a communicable disease of public health significance is grounds for inadmissibility. The U.S. government classifies the following conditions under this category:

  • Chancroids

  • Gonorrhea

  • Granuloma

  • Inguinale

  • Infectious leprosy

  • Lymphogranuloma venereum

  • Infectious syphilis

  • Active tuberculosis 

Government officials want to protect existing U.S. citizens and residents from contracting these diseases. This is why carriers of these diseases are usually found inadmissible when applying for an immigration benefit.

Lack of Necessary Vaccinations

You may also be inadmissible if you lack any required vaccinations. When applying for your status, you’ll need to provide your vaccination records. Before submitting your application, be sure you’re complying with vaccination mandates from the Department of Health and Human Services. You should also comply with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Advisory Committee for Immunization Practices. 

Unvaccinated applicants can contribute to the spread of contagious and threatening diseases. So the U.S. government limits immigration of unvaccinated applicants. 

Physical or Mental Disorders

Applicants could also be inadmissible if they have physical or mental disorders associated with harmful behavior. Harmful behavior includes behavior that threatens property or another person. U.S. immigration law does not specify certain disorders under this category. Having any disorder with associated harmful behavior can block your immigration application. If you have your medical exam in the United States, a qualified civil surgeon will assess your physical or mental condition.

Having a disorder alone will not disqualify you from immigrating. Your disorder must come with associated harmful behavior to affect your admissibility.

Drug Addiction or Abuse

Your health concerns may include drug abuse or addiction. Section 202 of the Controlled Substances Act lists all of the prohibited substances. Abusing or being addicted to any of these substances will hurt your admissibility standing. When you apply, a civil surgeon must assess whether you have abused or are addicted to any prohibited substances.

A civil surgeon will also need to make a new assessment to determine whether your substance abuse is related to another ground for inadmissibility. For example, if your substance abuse involves a crime, you may be at risk of inadmissibility due to criminal activity as well.

Inadmissibility Due to Criminal History Concerns

Having a criminal history can raise the U.S. government’s concerns about your application. A criminal history can be a barrier to receiving certain immigration benefits, such as a green card, DACA status, or Advance Parole. Immigration officers see crimes involving moral turpitude, drug offenses, multiple convictions, or other criminal behaviors as red flags. Based on your criminal history, a USCIS or consular officer may conclude that you are a threat to public safety.

Crimes Involving Moral Turpitude

Crimes involving moral turpitude are extremely serious. These crimes are severe violations of basic moral principles. They include murder, rape, robbery, kidnapping, voluntary manslaughter, assault, spousal or child abuse, incest, certain types of fraud, and many other crimes.

Those within the United States will face consequences for these crimes if discovered. Non-citizens convicted within the last five years may face deportation. Lawful permanent residents convicted within the last 10 years may also face deportation. If you have a history of these crimes, you’ll want to consult with an immigration lawyer before applying.

Drug Offenses

Drug offenses can also cause concern. If you violate any foreign or domestic controlled substance laws, you may trigger grounds for inadmissibility. You may review a list of controlled substances in the Code of Federal Regulations. Aiding or participating in drug trafficking will also trigger inadmissibility.

Multiple Criminal Convictions

Having multiple criminal convictions on your record will also harm your application. You fall under the multiple convictions category if you have two or more convictions. You become inadmissible for multiple criminal convictions if your sentences add up to five or more total years in prison. Sometimes, these crimes may overlap with moral turpitude crimes.

Other Criminal Behaviors

Other criminal behaviors can result in grounds for inadmissibility. These include prostitution, commercialized vices, human trafficking, religious freedom violations, money laundering, and more.

If you want to come to the United States to engage in prostitution or you have a history of prostitution within the last 10 years, you are inadmissible. Illegally promoting or participating in profitable sexual activities counts as commercialized vice as well.

You are also inadmissible if:

  • You have served as a foreign government official at some point and you participated in violations of religious freedom;

  • You have attempted or committed human trafficking in the United States or abroad; or

  • You have engaged in financial offenses relating to money laundering, or hiding away illegal funds.

Inadmissibility Due to National Security Concerns

You become inadmissible if you have a record of terrorist involvement. Posing a threat to U.S. security is also grounds for inadmissibility. Connection to any anti-American or violent groups can make you ineligible for a visa or green card.

Suppose you do not participate in terrorist activities, but you have some connection to a terrorist organization through friends or family members. You may have difficulty convincing the U.S. government that you would not pose a risk to U.S. national security. In this case, you’ll want to speak to a lawyer before starting your application.

Inadmissibility Due to Public Charge Concerns

Inadmissibility can result from public charge concerns. Public charges are those who might end up heavily relying on public benefits to survive in the country. However, the U.S. government prefers not to let immigrants in this category enter or remain in the United States. When applying for an immigrant visa or permanent resident status, you’ll need to prove you have a stable source of financial support.

Inadmissibility Due to Misrepresentation or Fraud

If the government discovers that you misrepresented yourself on an earlier immigration application, they can deem you inadmissible. If you committed fraud and used another approved immigrant’s identity to enter the United States, you will also fall under this category.

Inadmissibility Due to Prior Immigration Problems

You may have a history of prior immigration violations. Here are some examples:

  • You will be inadmissible if you have stayed in the United States without proper status for over 180 days. 

  • You will also be inadmissible if U.S. immigration officials have previously removed, deported, or excluded you. 

  • If you left the United States voluntarily with a pending final order of removal, you are ineligible to return.

  • If you have spent one year or more in the United States illegally and try to reenter again without permission, you will become inadmissible.

Other Grounds for Inadmissibility

There are several additional grounds for inadmissibility, including:

  • Entering the country illegally, without inspection or parole

  • Failing to attend your immigration court or removal proceedings

  • Smuggling or aiding smugglers

  • Abusing student visas

  • Renouncing your U.S. citizenship in the past to avoid taxation

  • Being an unlawful voter

  • Participating in international child kidnappings or being an abductor’s relative

Are There Exceptions To Inadmissibility?

There are certain exceptions to grounds for inadmissibility. Depending on your intended immigration status, USCIS may automatically waive some grounds of inadmissibility for you. Most commonly, applicants for asylum, VAWA, or refugee status will face more lenient inadmissibility standards. When filing Form I-360 to initiate one of these applications, you won’t face the same strict inadmissibility grounds that applicants for other statuses face.

Since asylum, refugee, and VAWA applicants face challenging life circumstances, USCIS is more understanding of these applicants’ voluntary or involuntary immigration violations. Typically, VAWA petitioners may have their unlawful presence, entry, misrepresentation, or criminal grounds forgiven if they committed these actions for survival or safety reasons while facing abuse. 

Asylees in the United States do not face inadmissibility grounds at the time they receive their asylum grant. When you have a pending asylum application, USCIS shields you from accruing unlawful presence in the United States. Refugees seeking to enter the United States are judged on inadmissibility when applying for refugee status. Asylees will eventually face inadmissibility grounds when they eventually apply for adjustment of status.

Is There Anything I Can Do if I’m Inadmissible?

Some grounds for inadmissibility may never expire by themselves. However, applicants can take several actions to move forward with their immigration application even if they are inadmissible.

Immigration officials will overlook certain grounds. If you have resolved an issue outside of your control, such as health-related grounds, you won’t need to worry. USCIS can fairly consider your application once you are healthy again and no longer pose a threat to U.S. public health or safety.

If you’re able to make a convincing case, USCIS may also consider waiving a wide range of other grounds for inadmissibility. You’ll likely face an uphill battle when applying for a waiver. However, if you successfully obtain one, USCIS can overlook your past actions or conditions in violation of the INA.

Grounds for Inadmissibility No Longer Applicable

Some reasons for inadmissibility may no longer apply. For example, a resolved medical issue will allow you to move forward. Perhaps you received an incorrect diagnosis, a cure, or any missing vaccines you needed. Once resolved, you’ll be able to proceed with your application.

If your disqualifying criminal offense is not recent, you may remain admissible. For example, if you plan to or have already engaged in or profited from prostitution, you will be inadmissible for 10 years. After this 10-year period, this offense will not count against you.

Inadmissibility Waivers

Even if you are inadmissible, you may still gain permission to enter and stay in the United States. To do so, you’ll need to submit a waiver application. If approved, USCIS will consider your immigration application without penalizing you for your violation of the INA. A successful waiver application will allow immigration officials to overlook certain inadmissibility issues, including:

  • Having a communicable disease

  • Having a physical or mental disorder associated with harmful behavior

  • Lacking any required vaccinations

  • Violating immigration laws

  • Having committed crimes of moral turpitude

  • Having multiple criminal convictions

  • Engaging in prostitution

  • Being a public charge

The U.S. government will not grant any waivers for the following categories of applicants:

  • Substance abusers or drug addicts

  • Drug traffickers

  • Spies of enemy foreign governments

  • Terrorists

  • Nazis

Note that you’ll need to make a strong case if applying for a waiver. You should explain why the benefits of receiving a waiver outweigh any harm. You should also describe the circumstances behind your inadmissibility and address why immigration officials should overlook these issues.

USCIS maintains several waiver forms. Form I-601 applies to those seeking to waive a ground for inadmissibility. Form I-601A applies to those seeking a waiver for previous unlawful presence. For more information about these forms, read our article on waiver of inadmissibility applications. USCIS also offers Form I-690 for special agricultural workers and those who entered the United States before January 1, 1982.