Immigration Crimes and Penalties Under Federal Law
Immigration law in the United States is complex and constantly evolving. There are many ways that a non-citizen can run afoul of immigration laws and face severe consequences like deportation or being barred from re-entering the U.S. Understanding the key immigration crimes and penalties under federal law is critical for non-citizens facing criminal charges.
Unlawful Entry and Reentry
- Enter or attempt to enter the U.S. at any time or place other than designated by immigration officers
- Elude examination or inspection by immigration officers
- Obtain entry into the U.S. by a willfully false or misleading representation or willful concealment of a material fact
For a first offense, the maximum penalty is 6 months in prison. Subsequent offenses are punishable by up to 2 years in prison.
Illegal reentry after removal is a more serious felony offense under 8 U.S.C. § 1326. The maximum prison sentence is 2 years, but can reach up to 20 years if the non-citizen has certain criminal convictions or was previously removed on certain grounds.
Prosecutions for unlawful entry and reentry reached record highs during the Trump administration, but have fallen under Biden. These entry-related offenses still account for a substantial portion of the federal criminal docket.
Smuggling, Transporting, Harboring
Several laws criminalize assisting unlawful immigration:
- Alien smuggling (8 U.S.C. § 1324(a)(1)(A)): Bringing or attempting to bring a non-citizen into the U.S. illegally. Punishable by up to 10 years in prison, with higher maximums if done for financial gain.
- Encouraging or inducing illegal immigration (8 U.S.C. § 1324(a)(1)(A)(iv)): Encouraging or inducing a non-citizen to come to or reside in the U.S. knowing it would be illegal. Up to 5 years in prison.
- Transporting (8 U.S.C. § 1324(a)(1)(A)(ii)): Transporting a non-citizen within the U.S. knowing they entered illegally. Punishable by up to 5 years in prison, 10 if done for financial gain.
- Harboring (8 U.S.C. § 1324(a)(1)(A)(iii)): Harboring, shielding or concealing a non-citizen in the U.S. illegally. Up to 5 years imprisonment, 10 if done for financial gain.
Marrying solely to evade immigration laws is a crime under 8 U.S.C. § 1325(c). The maximum penalty is 5 years in prison and a fine. Prosecutors can also charge immigration marriage fraud under other laws prohibiting false statements, visa fraud, or marriage fraud.
False Claims of U.S. Citizenship
Fraudulently Obtaining Citizenship
Under 18 U.S.C. § 1425, it is a crime to knowingly procure naturalization contrary to law. This includes obtaining naturalization through fraud or willful misrepresentation. The penalty is up to 25 years imprisonment, with higher maximums if done to facilitate drug trafficking or terrorism.
Identity Theft and False Statements
Defenses and Mitigating Immigration Consequences
For non-citizens, the immigration consequences of a conviction can be severe. However, an experienced criminal defense attorney may be able to get charges dismissed or reduced, or plea to an alternate offense to avoid negative immigration outcomes.
Potential defenses include:
- Lack of intent – the non-citizen did not knowingly commit fraud or make false statements
- Duress or necessity – the non-citizen felt compelled to act unlawfully
- Entrapment – the non-citizen was induced to commit the crime by government agents
Consulting with an attorney knowledgeable in both criminal and immigration law is critical to avoid or minimize immigration consequences. Non-citizen defendants have the right to be advised of immigration consequences before pleading guilty.