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What Happens When a Non-Citizen Is Accused of a Crime?

Individuals who have entered the United States illegally are already putting themselves at serious risk of becoming entangled in the legal system. But what happens when a non-citizen winds up being accused of committing a crime? Regardless of the severity of the crime—whether it’s petty theft or a violent crime, such as murder—and regardless of his or her guilt, a person who is not a U.S. citizen but who has been accused of a crime in this country is automatically in a difficult legal situation.

The key problem faced by a non-citizen in this situation is that criminal and immigration cases are not one and the same. In other words, an individual accused of robbing a bank will likely face criminal charges for that offense—with fines or jail time as a penalty—as well as charges related to his or her immigration status, with deportation as the ultimate consequence. The complex nature of such a case makes the urgency of finding legal representation all the greater—preferably a single attorney with experience in criminal law as well as immigration law.


It’s not at all uncommon for criminal charges to be dropped in cases in which an individual’s status as a non-citizen brings an immigration component into the mix. This allows U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to bring the individual to immigration court more expediently. What happens in these cases is that the arresting authorities will report the individual to ICE, which will then request that criminal charges be dropped. If this happens, ICE then takes custody of the individual.

In other situations, the criminal case may proceed to its conclusion. After a not-guilty verdict or after the individual has served his or her sentence, he or she will then be remanded into the custody of ICE, at which point the immigration case may proceed.

An immigration case is handled somewhat differently, in that the individual is not guaranteed an attorney, although an immigration lawyer can be extremely helpful in the event that the individual wants to argue that he or she should be able to remain in the United States. The outcome of an immigration case may involve steps being taken toward the individual gaining legal status in the United States, or it may result in deportation.

In the latter situation, there will often be time-based restrictions on the individual’s ability to enter the United States in the future, and the particulars of the criminal case will likely be sent to the individual’s home country. Unfortunately, individuals can be prosecuted internationally for the same crime—particularly in serious cases—once they’ve been deported.

Due to the complexity of joint criminal and immigration cases, finding an experienced and knowledgeable attorney can make a huge difference as far as the outcome is concerned.