In changes to the immigration laws in 1996, called The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA), a new concept was introduced in immigration law called “unlawful presence.” The concept came into force on April 1, 1997, when the reforms came into effect – or so we thought. We thought unlawful presence before April 1, 1997, would not have immigration consequences. For the immigration agencies to figure out what it meant – Congress did not define it – took years, much confusion, and many policy memos. Unlawful presence was not the same as being in status or lawful status or lawful nonimmigrant status, or here with the authorization of the government or …. It is not a common sense concept. A person can be out of status and not unlawfully present. A person can have unlawful presence but be allowed to work. Differentiating between these concepts is something that Alabama, Arizona, and Georgian police must now know all about because state laws criminalize being out of some or other of these. When they figure it all out, they can then clarify it for the rest of us – and the courts, which do not agree on the meaning and impact of these concepts, as discussed here.
The effect of unlawful presence is harsh. If an alien accrues 180 days of unlawful presence and departs the United States, he or she cannot come back for three years. If the person accrues one year of unlawful presence and departs the United States, he or she cannot come back for ten years. The bars, found at INA § 212(a)(9)(B), affectionately called the 3 and 10 year bars, respectively, cause all kinds of hardship for people who must leave the country to get visas, as their departing to get their visas results in their inadmissibility. There is a waiver based on extreme hardship to a citizen or permanent resident spouse or parent, but without the qualifying relative or if the requisite hardship is not found, the person who left to get the visa faces a bar to re-entry to the United States for three or ten years. Ironically, it is departing the United States which creates the bar. It is ironic because the law creates a disincentive to departing and you would think immigration laws would encourage the undocumented to depart the country, not to stay here. (more…)