Sorry, But I Didn't Know!

by Imagine you travel to another country that does not allow nose-picking in the public, but you don't know that and you start picking your itchy nose upon arrival at the airport.  You are arrested instantly. You explain to the police officer that you didn't know that it was unlawful to pick your nose.  "We don't care if you know or not," says the police officer with a stern voice.

Yes, in many countries including the United States, one may not avoid legal penalties after breaking the law by claiming ignorance.  The reason is that, if ignorance of the law can be used as a defense, everybody would use it as an excuse after committing a crime.  And it would be difficult for the government to punish any wrongdoing. 

People from other countries come to the United States to study, to seek employment opportunities, to seek freedom and to start a new life.  While pursuing their dreams in this great nation, sometimes they would do things that are not entirely legal according to American laws.  A foreign student may start working under the table to help pay for his tuition.  A newcomer may start driving to get to work before she obtains her driver's license.  An H-1B foreign worker may work at a job-site that has not been approved for. However, when their unlawful acts are caught by the authorities, the consequences can be very serious.  Their visas could be cancelled and they stay terminated.  

When foreigners are accused of wrongdoing, it is not unusual for them to claim some degree of ignorance - "Sorry but I didn't know," "My friend told me it was okay to do it." or "I thought it was wrong to do that but it's okay to do this," etc.  Granted, some of them are only trying to avoid responsibilities by claiming ignorance.  Some others, I believe, are actually telling the truth.  

In the context of immigration, there are thousands of regulations, and the policies are constantly changing.  For example, take something as simple as the immigration forms as an example.  It is not unusual for the DHS to change the forms and the related instructions on a yearly basis. It is not easy to figure out who is the petitioner, applicant, beneficiary, requester, preparer, translator, etc.  A person can be the beneficiary in the Form I-130 but the same person has become the petitioner in Form I-751.  The immigration statutes, regulations, administrative decisions, court decisions, policy memos, etc., are even more difficult to follow, even for seasoned immigration professionals.   No wonder some people say the complexity of immigration laws rivals tax laws. 

Hence, it is not difficult to understand why a foreigner with a different cultural background and limited English proficiency may not fully understand the intricacies of the legal requirements imposed by various government agencies. After all, foreign nationals didn't come here to study American laws; they are here to study engineering, to seek employment opportunities, to invest their capital, to start their business, and to seek religious or political freedom.  Yet, when they are caught violating the law, even a minor offense or technical violation, the result could be deportation from the United States. Remember, ignorance of the law is not an excuse!

If we are a nation that takes pride in welcoming visitors and foreigners, and if America is truly a melting pot, then maybe we should do more to educate foreigners about our laws and requirements. Few people are confused about what acts the Ten Commandments prohibit.  Adults and children alike need clear boundaries regarding their actions. Multilingual pamphlets placed at the ports of entry are a good starting point.  Instead of the 9-point fine print warnings in visa application forms, why don't we pass out literature written in simple English and printed in big, bold letters to visa applicants at American Embassies outlining what they may or may not do in the United States.  One caveat - since the immigration laws and policies are not always clear-cut and change constantly, it would be necessary to revise these educational materials regularly to provide the most updated information to foreigners.

It would also be in America's interests to provide advance warnings to foreign nationals. We spend millions and millions of dollars in enforcing the immigration laws and removing foreign nationals every year.  (We went as far as setting up and operating a bogus university - University of North New Jersey - to counter student visa fraud.)  With early warnings and effective education, we could reduce our enforcement costs substantially.  To be fair, the Department of Homeland Security has already implemented various initiatives, such as public outreach meetings, multilingual webpages and online materials, etc.,  to educate the public regarding various immigration programs.   We are moving in the right direction, but more needs to be done.  As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  

This post originally appeared on THE IMMIGRATION BLOG. Reprinted with permission.

About The Author

Paul Szeto Paul Szeto, Esq. served as a Trial Attorney and Assistant District Counsel for the New York District of the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS, whose functions have since been transferred to DHS) from 1994 to 1999. As an INS attorney, Mr. Szeto personally handled hundreds of immigration cases. In addition to handling immigration and nationality cases inside and outside of the courtroom, he also offered legal advice to immigration inspectors and adjudicators.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.