Can I safely travel if I am out of status?

IMMIGRATION CORNER - Michael J. Gurfinkel - The Philippine Star

Many people in the US are out of status, but need to fly, either for business or family functions, such as a wedding, graduation, etc. When they consult with me, I am often asked:

• Is it safe for me to travel or fly within the US if I’m out of status?

• Will I be caught at the airport by ICE or CBP if I try to fly within the US?

• What kind of documents can I show TSA to get on the plane if I’m out of status?

• What about flying internationally, will I be able to come back?

It is possible for people to fly within the US, even if they are out of status, and the TSA lists several acceptable documents to enable people to clear security at airports. This is especially important, because starting in May 2023, if a person presents a driver’s license to TSA, the license has to comply with the REAL ID requirements, which include demonstrating a person’s lawful status. Obviously, if a person is out of status, they would not be able to do so.

Is it safe? Will I be caught?

As far as it being “safe” to travel within the US, ordinarily, I believe there is little risk of being caught by ICE, detained, etc. Obviously, if a person has a criminal record, is a terrorist and is found on some sort of watch list, that will raise a red flag regardless of their immigration status. They would obviously have problems. However, flying within the US does not require a visa. If a person flies domestically, or within the US, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is not there to check documents. That usually takes place if they are arriving from a foreign country. And, there are so many people who are out of status who routinely travel by air without encountering CBP.

I remember one case where a person who was out of status needed to go from Atlanta, Georgia to Phoenix, Arizona. Like many other people, he thought it was too risky to fly, because immigration might be at the airport. So, he decided to take a Greyhound bus. As the bus drove through Texas, there was an immigration checkpoint 400 miles from the Mexican border. The bus was stopped, immigration officers got on board and started asking people for their documents. Since he didn’t have any documents showing lawful status, he was placed in removal proceedings.


What kind of documents can a person present to the TSA to be able to board a plane? On its website, the TSA lists a number of acceptable documents. Among the acceptable documents is a “foreign government-issued passport.” This means if you have a valid, unexpired passport from your home country, with your picture, this constitutes an acceptable government-issued document that you can present to TSA. This would be the case even after the Real ID Act comes into effect, where you might not be able to get a Real ID driver’s license.

(To be continued)


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