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Do Immigrants Undergo Background Checks in the United States?

Background checks are a way of life in the United States. They’re used for everything from getting a job and renting an apartment to applying for tuition assistance and pursuing a professional license. Foreigners who seek to enter the United States for any reason are subject to background checks that begin with visa applications and may continue for many years for migrants seeking benefits such as asylum, legal residency, and naturalization.

The National Employment Screening Association estimates that average Americans can expect to go through about a dozen or more background checks in their lifetimes. Foreigners, particularly those who seek to obtain legal residency status in the U.S., can expect to go through even more background investigations than the average American. There are various levels of background checks. They can be as cursory as a passport and visa inspection at a port of entry or as detailed as investigations ordered by adjudicators from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) or immigration judges.

State Department & USCIS

Anyone who is required to have a visa to enter the U.S. will go through a background check process before approval and issuance. When visa applications are handled abroad, foreigners may be required to obtain reports from law enforcement agencies in their countries of origin. Adjudicators from the State Department or USCIS will do more than just review foreign background check reports. They’ll run names and identification numbers through various databases so they can decide on admissibility for both immigrant and non-immigrant visa applications.

Foreigners who arrive in the U.S. with passports that don’t require visas go through a different kind of inspection during the entry process. This is also for admissibility determination purposes. A similar process applies to refugees and migrants seeking asylum at ports of entry, but they’ll later go through more comprehensive background checks.

Personal information collected through visa application packets and ports of entry is entered into a centralized system shared by the State Department and USCIS. The system will be queried each time an immigrant applies for benefits. Let’s say an Indonesian skilled worker with an H-1B visa marries an American citizen. If that individual applies for USCIS benefits that culminate with naturalization a few years later, his or her background records will have been investigated at least five times. 


In addition to USCIS system queries, immigrants must also consent to comprehensive background checks conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The process involves biometric services that consist of collecting fingerprints and photographs. The entity that handles the submissions is the Criminal Justice Information Center. This FBI check is part of about a dozen immigration forms. It’s most commonly associated with Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status, but applicants may need to submit these materials to renew their green cards, apply for Temporary Protected Status, enter the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and participate in other proceedings. A background check is also required for someone applying for an EB-5 visa. San Diego immigrants should seek the advice of experienced immigration attorneys if they need help navigating the background check process.

The background check conducted by the FBI using biometrics results in a Record of Arrests and Prosecutions (RAP) sheet. An entry on this document won’t automatically preclude a favorable adjudication because not all crimes disqualify immigrants from obtaining USCIS benefits. Even when USCIS adjudicates negatively based on the RAP sheet, immigration law firms may challenge or appeal the decision through due process.

It should be noted that the USCIS $85 biometrics fee has been waived for Form I-539, Application to Extend or Change Non-Immigrant Status, as of October 1st, 2023. RAP sheets are valid for 18 months. Unless they’re specifically required by immigration forms, the requirement to refresh them will be at the discretion of USCIS evaluators.

If you have questions about any aspect of the immigration process, contact the immigration attorneys San Diego residents trust. The lawyers at KS Visa Law have vast experience with every aspect of immigration law, and they’re the attorneys to call on when you need the most up-to-date information about immigration regulations. Call KS Visa Law today at 858-874-0711 to schedule an appointment.

June 2024