Know Your Rights: Special Information for Non-Citizens

Non-citizens involved in the criminal justice system confront additional and severe civil consequences. Even if you have lived in the United States for a long time or if you have ties to the U.S. and family here, guilty pleas and convictions can lead to an immediate detention and the initiation of deportation (also called “removal”) proceedings.

1. What are the types of consequences I can face if I am not a citizen and I am arrested in the U.S?

In addition to immediate detention and the start of deportation proceedings, some of the other consequences include:

  • Not being able to get health insurance,
  • Not being able to become a U.S. citizen or renew or obtain a green card,
  • Not being able to return to the U.S. at least for a certain amount of time, and
  • Not being able to apply for asylum, even if faced with persecution in your home country.

Because these consequences are so severe and complex, it is absolutely critical to consult an immigration lawyer – and make sure that your defense attorney does so – before taking any plea or conviction. This is especially important if you have had any previous encounters with the legal system (e.g. prior arrests or convictions).
If you are a non-citizen, regardless of whether you are a green card holder or undocumented, even a non-criminal violation can make you deportable or bring about other undesirable consequences. Make sure to tell your attorney what your immigration situation is in all cases. Insist that your attorney tell you about how your case might affect your immigration status.

If you are a non-citizen, a Supreme Court ruling, Padilla v. Kentucky, requires that your lawyer inform you if accepting a guilty plea might put you at risk for deportation.

2. What types of crimes cause these consequences?

In the area of immigration law it is difficult to make a simple list of specific types of crimes and their corresponding civil consequences. However, it is important to understand that even low-level, nonviolent offenses (such as shop-lifting, drug possession, and turnstile-jumping) can lead to deportation. For instance, two convictions for turnstile jumping can make a lawful permanent resident deportable.

Remember that anyone who is undocumented can be deported. Therefore, if you spend time in jail, even if in the end you are released and not convicted, you may risk disclosing your undocumented status to government officials. The government often questions people in custody regarding immigration issues.

There are some excellent guides and materials on the topic that offer a lot more information. Families for Freedom publishes a guide called Deportation 101: Detention, Deportation, and the Criminal Justice System, available for FREE on their website:

3. Even if I have my green card, can I still be deported?

Yes. You should contact an immigration lawyer to help figure out what steps you should take. Depending on how long you have been living in the U.S. and what type of offense you are charged with, you may be able to avoid deportation.

As a green card holder, if you have had legal convictions of any kind and are thinking about renewing your green card (green cards expire every ten years), traveling out of the country, or applying for citizenship, consult an attorney before taking any of these actions, which may have consequences that you have not anticipated.

4. What should I do if I am being held in jail with an ICE detainer?

If you are being held in jail with an ICE (Immigration & Customs Enforcement) detainer, meaning that you have already been placed in deportation proceedings:

  • Call the Immigrant Defense Project: The Immigrant Defense Project runs a hotline for criminal defense attorneys and immigrant clients and families on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. at 212-725-6422.
  • Call the Legal Aid Society’s Immigration Law Unit Hotline at 212-577-3456 on Wednesdays and Fridays between 1:00pm and 5:00pm. The Immigration Law Unit accepts collect calls from prisons and detention centers.
  • Know your rights in detention: Some detention facilities will have educational literature about your rights and legal options,

5. Are there any organizations that can help me?

  • The Immigrant Defense Project runs a hotline Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. at 718-858-9658 ext. 201. Offers advice, but no legal representation.; (212) 725-6422
  • Families for Freedom is a New York-based organization working to fight deportation. They provide support, education, and action for both families and communities affected by these issues. Does not offer legal representation.; (646) 290-5551
  • Legal Aid Society offers legal representation.; (212) 577-3300
  • Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project: Florence, Eloy, and Phoenix, AZ. Offers legal services to people detained in immigration removal proceedings in Arizona. (520) 868.0191 

You can also search for immigration legal services providers by visiting Immigrant Advocate Networks’ National Immigration Legal Services Directory

This handout is an excerpt from The Consequences of Criminal Charges: A People’s Guide, published by The Bronx Defenders. It is for informational purposes only and is NOT a substitute for legal advice. It is up to date as of October 2010.