Back in 1996 the Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA) created three year, ten year, and permanent bars on admission to the U.S. for a variety of immigration status violations.
These bars apply widely and affect immigrants who have family in the U.S., have worked and paid taxes in the U.S., and in many cases are otherwise eligible for permanent resident status.
The three year bar to re-entry into the U.S.: The three year bar applies to individuals who have been unlawfully present in the United States for a continuous period of more than 180 days, but less than one year, and who voluntarily depart the U.S.
The ten year bar to re-entry into the U.S.: The ten year bar applies to individuals unlawfully present in the U.S. for an aggregate period of one year or more who depart voluntarily. Unlawful presence begins to accrue when the period of authorized stay expires or after an entry to the U.S. without inspection.
If you have overstayed your visa for the amounts of time listed above, and you leave the country, the bar automatically applies.
What you need to be careful of?
Most people confuse their visa (the sticker that is placed in their passport) expiration date and their I-94 (the amount of time granted by the officer when you enter the country) expiration date. The only date really matters for the purpose of this subject is the I-94 expiration date. To find your I-94 date, you should go to this site: https://i94.cbp.dhs.gov/I94/request.html . Coincidentally, this is also a helpful link if you are applying for Citizenship and need a reminder on some of your recent entries into the USA.
The key is to always pay attention to the expiration date on your I-94. Pay particular attention to this if you are granted a B-1/B-2 visa for 10 years, although the visa grants you the right to enter the USA during the next 10 years, it typically does not allow you to STAY in the USA without leaving for 10 years.
If you have found yourself in a situation where you have overstayed your allowed time, you need to find an Immigration Attorney to discuss your options BEFORE you depart. The automatic bars are hard to overcome, but we do have some options.
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The above information is general in nature and is not intended to be considered or relied upon as legal advice. You should always consult an attorney to determine if you are eligible to apply for adjustment of status or whether the potential reward of consular processing is worth any risk created by leaving the U.S.