No human being is illegal – the importance of understanding the difference between visa and immigration status.
Drug trafficking is illegal, kidnapping of children is illegal, drunk driving is illegal. An individual, however, regardless of his immigration status, is never illegal. Even so, this way of describing someone who has violated the terms of their stay in the United States and is consequently without status has become common.
Although the terms visa and status are often used interchangeably, they are different immigration institutes. The term visa refers to the document stamped on the passport at a consulate or embassy abroad; while, the term status refers to the immigration status in which the individual is framed in the United States, as indicated on their I-94 form.
The only function of the visa is to authorize an individual to travel to a US port of entry (airports are also considered ports of entry) and apply for entry into the country. The visa itself does not guarantee its holder entry to the United States. It is the immigration agent at customs, after examining the passenger’s documents, who has the prerogative to authorize or not the person to enter the country. Once admitted to the country, the person is granted an immigration status and their visa becomes insignificant during their stay.
Immigration status, on the other hand, refers to the set of responsibilities an individual has to the US government. In immigration terms, status is the legal category in which a person is authorized to enter the United States, usually with one-letter nomenclature (eg, B-1, F-2, H-1B). Each status category has different grant requirements, as well as different regulations, responsibilities, and benefits. Once a person enters the United States and his or her immigration status is determined, it becomes essential to adhere to its rules. Violation of the terms of immigration status implies the loss of status with consequences that can be extremely severe, such as cancellation of the visa.
One way of classifying immigration status is to divide it into three broad categories – non-immigration status, immigration status and dual intent immigration status.
The vast majority of immigration categories fall into the non-immigration status group. Individuals who come to the United States with non-immigration status should have the intention of leaving the country upon completion of the activity that gave rise to the visit. In this category are, for example, tourist and student status (B and F). On the other hand, in the immigration status category, individuals who intend to reside permanently in the United States, such as green card holders, are included. Finally, some statuses allow for hybrid intent, for example H-1B which is technically a non-immigration status but individuals in that status are not penalized for intending to remain in the United States.
Therefore, while it is possible to have multiple visas in one passport, only a single immigration status is allowed. In the same sense, the consequences of expiry of the visa term and expiry of the status term are completely opposite. The first is irrelevant to your stay in the country, while the second can lead to a deportation process.
Once admitted to the United States, the individual must take care to maintain his or her status. In the event that he remains in the country for longer than the time allowed or violates the terms of his status, that human being will never be illegal, but will be without status and must bear the consequences of this situation, which is sometimes irreversible.