By Susan E. Hill
Here are common mistakes people make when using their ESTA/ visitor visa. Some get away with it, but if you’re caught the consequences are severe, and you could be barred from the United States. Remember, it only takes one officer having a bad day to make your day even worse. Here’s a short guide to help you avoid trouble.
There’s no guarantee you’ll be admitted with your ESTA/visa
Don’t assume you’ll be admitted just because you have ESTA/visa. Each time you use ESTA/visa, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (USCBP) can question you about your intent. Always be prepared, it is your burden to convince the border officer that you are here for a short visit and that you will return home.
USCBP is looking for patterns that show abuse of the “visitor” purpose
Officers are suspicious of people who are constantly visiting the U.S. Frequent trips, especially with short turn-around times, indicate you are trying to establish another home and life here. Some people think they can extend their visiting time by crossing the border into Mexico or Canada, then turn right around and get back in for another 90 days or longer. This plan carries a high risk of being rejected at the border because you already had your vacation here, and why would you come back right away? For business, there could be legitimate reasons to visit frequently, but there is little explanation for repeated vacations to the U.S. There is no blueprint or formula to follow; officers look at how often and how long you are here given your personal circumstances.
You cannot “help” anyone while you are visiting
The U.S. protects its labor market, and wants to create jobs for U.S. citizens. If you “help” someone for free, you are taking away a potential job from an American worker. All of the following most likely are unauthorized employment on a visitor visa/ESTA: working for free; internships; volunteering; exchanging services for lodging, meals, etc.; caring for an ill relative. For business visitors, you can network and plan to advance your business, but you cannot do anything that an American worker would be hired to do, such as manage or operate the business.
Extensions: don’t count on them
ESTA visits can almost never be extended—the only exception is for an extreme emergency and even then you can only get 30 days at most. Visa extensions are confusing and can take months for an answer. Most people get in trouble with the complicated laws when the extension request drags on past their requested extension date, or if it gets denied.
Consequences of ESTA/visa abuse
The consequences can start with the aggravation and expense of being turned away at the border. Notations could be made in your computer file—no one will ever get to see them and the notations could be wrong or incomplete. This could be held against you in the future. More serious consequences include a removal order which bars you for five years. In some cases you can apply for a waiver to get around the bar, but that is not certain and it involves additional time and expense. In addition, you could be charged with misrepresentation, which follows you for life and requires another expensive and time-consuming waiver.
Document your need to be in the U.S. more than once per year, and how you will support yourself. USCBP officers can look through your belongings and electronic devices: texts, email and social media. If you refuse, then they can refuse to admit you. Items that cause trouble: texts/emails about helping a friend; business cards on a tourist; American credit cards or ATM cards; equipment/supplies for your business, and many more items that indicate an intent to work or live here. Ask yourself, “How does this look?” If you are already coming up with excuses and explanations, then you may be in trouble.
© 2021 Hill & Piibe, Immigration Attorneys