Legal Rights for Undocumented Immigrants

Immigration LawI often am asked what rights undocumented immigrants have in the United States. Many assume they have no rights; however, all persons living in the United States, regardless of immigration status, have certain protections.

In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court held that, under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, all people living in the United States, including non-citizens, are entitled to equal protection under the law and cannot be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law. Wong Wing v. United States, 163 U.S. 228 (1896). Additionally, all persons physically present in the United States, regardless of immigration status, have the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unlawful searches and seizures and the Fifth Amendment’s privilege against self-incrimination.

So what does this mean for immigrants? It means that, like everyone else, an undocumented immigrant has the right to refuse an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officer entry to their home unless the officer has a valid search warrant signed by a judge. Interestingly, ICE officers almost never have a valid search warrant when they approach the home of an undocumented immigrant. They rely on the fact that most undocumented immigrants will not know their rights.

Undocumented individuals who unknowingly allows ICE officers into their home still have the right to remain silent when questioned about their immigration status or country of birth. Why? Because answering such questions would be self-incrimination. It may seem ludicrous that a person does not have to answer questions as to their immigration status, but answering such questions can subject the person to removal (“deportation”) proceedings. Also, many people do not know that ICE has the burden to prove a person lacks lawful immigration status. By remaining silent, an undocumented individual holds ICE to its burden of proof, and ICE must produce evidence showing the person’s unlawful immigration status. As with criminal defendants, an undocumented immigrant is innocent of lacking lawful status until ICE proves otherwise.

This background helps illuminate why Texas’s SB4 “show me your papers” bill has been so controversial. Pending a ruling by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, SB4 has not fully gone into effect, but it is a move by the State to impose stricter rules than those mandated by the federal government, and it infringes on the constitutional rights of all persons in Texas.

What happens if ICE meets its burden and proves an individual is in the country unlawfully? Immigrants do not have the right to enter the United States unlawfully, but, once here, they are entitled to equal protection and due process under the law. This means that an individual facing removal is entitled to a hearing before an immigration judge to determine eligibility for relief from removal. The term “relief” refers to certain remedies available under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) for immigrants facing removal. Additionally, all persons in removal proceedings have the right to an attorney (but not at government expense), reasonable notice of the charges against them, notice of the place and time of the hearing, the opportunity to examine the evidence and witnesses presented against them, interpretation for non-English-speaking individuals, and clear-and-convincing proof that the government’s charges are valid.