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Can you face charges for helping an undocumented immigrant?

With heightened deportation efforts underway, undocumented immigrants in the U.S. are living in fear. Many American citizens have responded to the current administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration by volunteering their time and energy to help out their undocumented neighbors in need.

But what are the laws with regards to such assistance? You may have heard rumors that the authorities could seize your property or put you in jail for helping an undocumented immigrant. What’s the real story?

What the law states

The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) is the primary piece of legislation addressing this question. If you know that an individual is not legally permitted to be in the U.S., it is a felony for you to:

  • Help or encourage them to enter the U.S.,
  • Harbor them from detection by the authorities or
  • Transport them within the country in furtherance of their legal violation.

If a court finds you guilty of the above violation, the penalties are harsh. You could face fines and/or a prison sentence of five or more years.

However, there are several caveats in the above law that are worth understanding:

Suspicion of status

You may suspect that the individual you’re helping could be an undocumented immigrant, but unless you know their status for certain, a court cannot prove that you “knowingly” transported or harbored an undocumented immigrant.

Purpose of transportation

The “furtherance” clause in the law was designed to make it illegal to pick up an illegal immigrant who had just crossed the border and drive them to a nearby city. The simple act of giving an undocumented immigrant a ride, however, isn’t automatically illegal. A court would need to prove that the ride somehow supported the person’s illegal status. The federal case U.S. v. Moreno found that even driving an undocumented immigrant to a job site was legal.

The takeaway is that the INA was not designed to penalize a citizen who makes a good-will gesture or unwittingly helps someone who is undocumented. Helping your neighbor is not a crime. If you have questions about whether specific actions violate the INA, it’s worth consulting with an experienced immigration attorney for advice.

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