I am on vacation right now traveling in New Mexico. Today I had around couple hours of tense experience while my immigration status, H1B info, etc was checked by Border security officers (CBP) at Immigration check point around Las Cruces in state of New Mexico. Let me share you my experience and tell you some key information that was told by CBP officers that is important for all of you to know about carrying Passport and Visa papers all the time.
Situation: Stopped at Immigration Checkpoint for immigration check and held for 2 hrs.
We (myself and few friends) are on a road trip visiting few cities in the state of New Mexico. As part of our trip, we ended up traveling a little close to US border (around 60 miles) on our way in New Mexico State and we did not know there would be any immigration checkpoint within US, which is 60 miles away from the Mexico Border. As we thought we would be within US, we did not carry visa papers or passport with us and just carried driver’s license with us. We were stopped at the immigration check point by CBP officers at Las Cruces (around 50 – 60 miles from Mexico border). First thing they asked was, “ Can you give us your passports and immigration papers indicating your status?”. We said, “we do not have them”. We just gave our Driver’s licenses. The officer took our state issued driver’s licenses and went to check our immigration status. It took him 40 min to do basic check and then he came back and took me to the CBP office and said, “we are not able to verify your legal status info. We see that your visa is expired”. I was searched before entering the office. They took my finger prints of both hands and had me sit in the lobby outside for almost 45 minutes. I explained that, my H1B visa expired recently and I got my H1B visa extension few months ago. I could see around six people in CBP office trying to verify my visa info. Some trying to search in computer, some trying to call other offices and others helping with fax. The situation seemed to be very tense and they were very serious checking my immigration information. They asked my info like SSN, Full names of parents and some other basic information. I was just sitting outside watching the CBP officers do all their work seriously through the glass window, it was not good. No one was smiling. Finally after all the drama, they could verify my proper legal status information.
What was the problem with my H1B visa update and Immigration info ?
The reason for all this drama and tense situation was because, they were not able to verify my proper current legal status and had old information in their system indicating that my visa was expired. We think that all systems of USCIS and CBP are connected and integrated, but seems they are not. USCIS approved my extension few months ago and gave me new I-94 along with I797 indicating my proper H1B status, but that information was not updated in the CBP or US border protection office systems (I do not even know if they are connected. seems, there is a disconnect). They had to call many a times and do multiple things to verify my immigration information. I gave them the H1B approval notice number starting with EAC, but they could not get much out of it. They were asking for my ‘A’ number or Alien registration number and I did not had it. Finally, they were able to verify my information.
What did US CBP officer advise after this intense check at Border ?
The CBP officer just told me, “ if you are not US Citizen or permanent resident, legally YOU HAVE to carry your Passport, I-94 and current Immigration Status document (like I-797 for H1B), whenever you are traveling out of your current resident state.” I told him that I never had this problem and never carried these documents before. He just said, “ it is law and you are supposed to carry these documents all the time if you are traveling anywhere within US too and not just out of country”. I told him that I am not aware of this except that in Arizona it is required with new law. He was nice and just warned us to carry it next time.
Overall, my assumption that you do not need to carry passport, I-94 and Immigration document if you are traveling within US was wrong and I experienced some tense situation. Also, the immigration and USCIS systems seems not as interconnected as we think, so we have to be careful and carry all the papers. You could be in much complicated situation like me if you had H1B expired and got extension, so just avoid this by carrying all the necessary documents if you are traveling out of your current state (especially border states).
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