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Crossing the U.S. Border: Laws & Regulations

In the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the United States border entry rules became stricter. Immigration policies did the same.

Under directives from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), ports of entry engaged in more stringent practices. These negatively affected those attempting to cross the border. U.S. immigration laws enacted by Congress became less favorable to immigrants. They also caused greater difficulties for those trying to cross the border. Law enforcement and border security officials cracked down harder on such people, increasing the rate of deportation.

As a consequence of anxieties about terrorism, illegal immigration became a much bigger concern in the United States. Even legal immigration became harder. New policies concerning visa applications, naturalization, and asylum seekers went into effect.

This article highlights basic border entry rules. It addresses border crossings by U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents. It also covers information that affects "green card" holders. It also addresses policies that affect citizens of Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, and visitors from other countries.

In addition, it breaks down the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's (CBP) Trusted Traveler Programs for low-risk visitors. See "Crossing the Border" for more information and links to government resources and FindLaw articles.

Is It Harder To Cross the Border Now?

Under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), the U.S. immigration system had once been easier to navigate. In the post-9/11 world, however, the U.S. was no longer as accommodating for those crossing the border as it once was. Wait times for visa issuances grew longer. Even foreign students experienced delays in obtaining student visas. In general, migrants and noncitizens faced far more obstacles in determining eligibility for visas and entering the United States.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) experienced greater backlogs of visa applications. The same was and remains true for citizenship applications. It was no longer as easy to obtain citizenship for employment-based reasons. It was even harder to obtain a green card. Even temporary workers struggled to enter the U.S.

Those who already had a U.S. citizen family member had once received priority in the citizenship application process. This once meant shorter wait times for obtaining citizenship for people fitting this criterion. However, in the post-9/11 world, this was no longer the case. Across the board, the process of naturalization became more difficult. Along with many other government departments, the U.S. Department of State instituted far stricter policies at the consular and USCIS level.

The new policies were expansive. U.S. citizens have always needed to present a valid passport when crossing the U.S. border by air or land. This did not change after 9/11. But those with U.S. residency and legal permanent residents often faced greater suspicion when attempting to move through U.S. ports of entry.

However, they needed to provide appropriate travel documentation, as well. This has always been true. Visitors from other countries found it harder to travel to the United States. It is true, however, that those crossing the U.S. border by land or sea have not always been required to present a passport or other documentation. But in the wake of 9/11, policies were stricter. More and different documentation became required. This depended on factors like country of origin and immigration status.

U.S. Citizens

All U.S. citizens traveling by air (including children) are required to present a passport to clear customs. Sometimes, however, they are required to present some other kind of approved travel document. Instead of a passport, U.S. citizens may present a U.S. military ID with travel orders. On other occasions, a U.S. Merchant Mariner Document (when on official business) is also accepted.

Another accepted travel document could be a NEXUS card at airports with NEXUS kiosks. NEXUS cards allow approved members with expedited travel (air, land, and sea) between the U.S. and Canada. The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI)-compliant cards are part of the CBP's various Trusted Traveler Programs. CBP offers detailed information about the NEXUS card program. This includes a list of fees and step-by-step online application instructions. U.S. citizens returning to the U.S. by land or sea must have documentation that complies with the WHTI, typically a passport or trusted traveler card.

Lawful Permanent Residents

As with U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents (LPRs) must also present a passport or secure travel document when entering the U.S. by air. (Lawful permanent residents are also referred to as green card holders.) When crossing the border by land or sea, LPRs may present their Permanent Resident Card (Form I-551). See the CBP's "Entering the U.S. - Documents Required for Foreign Nationals" for more details.

Citizens of Canada, Mexico, and Bermuda

Special rules apply to Canadian, Mexican, and Bermudian citizens crossing the U.S. border as part of the WHTI. All international visitors must present a passport or secure travel document when entering the country by air. They must do so regardless of their country of origin. See CPB's interactive WHTI map for more detailed information.

  • Canadian Citizens: Must present a single WHTI-compliant document when visiting by land or sea. Some Canadian citizens are subject to US-VISIT biometric procedures.
  • Bermudian Citizens: Must present a single WHTI-compliant document when visiting by land or sea. All Bermudian citizens are subject to US-VISIT biometric procedures.
  • Mexican Citizens: Must present a passport with a nonimmigrant visa or laser visa border crossing card when visiting by land or sea. Some Mexican citizens are subject to US-VISIT biometric procedures.

All Other International Visitors

International visitors to the U.S. typically must show a passport or e-Passport when going through customs. Visitors from certain countries may enter the U.S. without a visa. They may do so under the Visa Waiver Program. They are subject to the internet-based Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). This applies before traveling to the U.S. Those entering the U.S. on a visa are subject to US-VISIT biometric screening procedures.

Trusted Traveler Programs

CBP's Trusted Traveler Programs encompass various types of pre-screenings. These provide expedited travel through dedicated lanes for travelers determined to be low-risk.

  • NEXUS: For approved members between the Canada and U.S. border for land, sea, and air entry
  • SENTRI: For approved members between the Mexico and U.S. border for land, sea, and air entry
  • FAST: For approved commercial truck drivers between Canada and the U.S. and Mexico and U.S. borders
  • Global Entry: For pre-screened international travelers to the U.S

Get Your Questions About Crossing the Border Answered by a Legal Professional

Immigration laws are constantly changing. A number of different things can cause confusion among those entering the United States. Amongst those things are executive orders and changes in laws related to border crossings. What was true yesterday under one president may not be true under another. They can be difficult to navigate on your own. It's always a good idea to speak with an experienced immigration lawyer near you.

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