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Law and the Border: Law and Better Understanding the I-94 Card

The I-94 card issued at the U.S. border is a source of much confusion. Some people get one and some don't. Some people get one for a short duration and only one entry, while others get one that is val...

The I-94 card issued at the U.S. border is a source of much confusion. Some people get one and some don’t. Some people get one for a short duration and only one entry, while others get one that is valid for multiple entries over a long time period. Some people get one in connection with an Immigration waiver, and some get one if they don’t need a waiver. We would like to demystify and clarify the issues surrounding this document. This month we will focus on what the I-94 card is and who receives one.

What is it? The I-94 card is a record of arrival and departure. The general rule is that it is issued to foreign nationals upon entering the United States. It was designed to keep track of a person’s entry to the United States, to clearly state the nature and maximum term of stay, and to serve as proof of departure when the card is surrendered upon leaving the country.

The standard I-94 card is a white, two-part form. The Immigration officer reviews the person’s identification and completes the top (arrival record) portion and the bottom (departure record) portion. Both portions contain a unique 11-digit admission number. The inspecting officer will review the person’s intentions and eligibility for entry as a visitor or other visa category, and place a date stamp on both portions of the form. The date stamp also identifies the port of entry, the inspecting officer and the visa category for which admission is granted, and it establishes the maximum length of stay in the U.S. The holder of the card is required to leave the United States before the expiration date and surrender the card as proof of departure. The basic elements of the I-94 card have been in place for years, but it has become a more important tool for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) over the past two years in light of the heightened emphasis on national security.

Who gets one? The answer to this question has changed over the past two years. The answer depends upon the person’s citizenship and purpose for entry.

The rules for Canadian citizens are much different from the rules for citizens of other countries. Canadian citizens and U.S. citizens have long enjoyed the privilege of travelling between the countries as visitors without the need for passports and without the need for visas. This “visa exempt” status means that most Canadian citizens never receive an I-94 card or other entry document as part of their visit. That is not the norm.

As a general rule, citizens of other countries require a passport and a visa for entry to the United States. The visa is usually obtained from the U.S. Embassy in the person’s home country. The visa is affixed to the person’s passport and specifies the category for which approval has been granted. Depending on the type of visa and the country of citizenship, the visa can be valid for one entry or multiple entries over several years. Upon entry to the United States, the inspector reviews the person’s passport and, after being satisfied that the person is admissible for that purpose, issues the I-94 card to control that particular entry. Generally, I-94 cards are issued to visitors for six months, although it is possible that the inspecting officer would issue it for a shorter duration if the circumstances suggest that six months is too long.

Approximately 10 years ago, the U.S. Department of State attempted an experiment to reduce the burden of visa issuance on foreign embassies. It was noted that citizens of certain countries had a very low incidence of visa fraud or visa overstays, particularly for business visitors. The Department of State decided to waive the normal visa requirement, and allowed visitors from these countries to be admitted to the United States without the visa. This program is known as the visa waiver program (VWP), and applies to citizens of approximately 30 different countries. To prevent abuses of this privilege, the VWP instituted two major changes from the normal I-94 card system. First, I-94 cards under the VWP are green, not white. Second, they are issued for 90 days, and the holder cannot extend or change those terms. Other than that, the I-94 card serves the same purpose as the other white card.

That leaves one final category: Canadian citizens who receive I-94 cards as a matter of discretion. This is something that has become commonplace for truckers at certain ports of entry along the northern border. Canadian citizens with clean criminal records do not need an I-94 card to enter the United States. However, as a matter of making the inspection process efficient for both sides, some ports of entry have decided to issue I-94 cards to individuals who make frequent trips to the U.S., such as truck drivers. Instead of taking the time to do background checks every time the driver enters, the inspecting officer can review the person’s record once, determine he is admissible, and issue him a I-94 card. Not all ports of entry follow this procedure, but most will issue an I-94 card upon request as proof of admissibility. Next month: What do I do with it when I leave the U.S.?

– Daniel Joyce can be reached at Hirsch and Joyce, Attorneys at Law, at 716-564-2727.

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