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What questions can you legally be asked about your immigration status as an expat living in the US?

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As an expat living in the United States, it's essential to understand your rights when it comes to inquiries about your immigration status. While certain entities may have legitimate reasons to ask about your immigration status, there are restrictions in place to protect you from discrimination.

So who can and cannot ask about your immigration status, and when can you push back?

Housing: Renting and Buying Property

When searching for housing, landlords and real estate agents may legally request proof of your identity and financial stability to ensure that you can afford the rent or mortgage payments.

However, they cannot discriminate against you based on your immigration status or national origin under the Fair Housing Act. This means that while they may ask for your Social Security number or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) for credit checks, they cannot directly inquire about your immigration status or refuse to rent or sell a property to you solely because you are an expat.

If you are directly asked about this, you can contact your state's Attorney Generalor file a complaint with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, as this is a very well protected clause nationally in the US.

The issue you will face though is that if you are asked, pushing back may result in you not getting the apartment. This is a tremendously unfair process, but will require you to hold your own, work your way through the process as far as you can, and demonstrate that you know your rights. In many cases, you might be told that you have been passed on because “other reasons” but document everything, do business in writing, and be sure to follow-up on behalf of other expats who will be in your situation in the future.

Credit: Applying for Loans and Credit Cards

Financial institutions, such as banks and credit card companies, may also require proof of your legal status in the United States when you apply for loans, credit cards, or other financial products. They may ask for your Social Security number, ITIN, or a valid form of identification, such as a passport or visa, to verify your identity and determine your eligibility.

While these institutions are allowed to ask for this information, they are prohibited from discriminating against you based on your immigration status or national origin under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA).

Bigger institutions will be more careful about how they deal with you in these situations, so feel comfortable pushing back or filing a complaint with the US Department of HUD if you feel you are being discriminated against based on your nationality.

Banking: Opening and Maintaining Bank Accounts

When opening a bank account in the United States, banks are required to follow the Customer Identification Program (CIP) rules under the Bank Secrecy Act. This means they may ask for your name, date of birth, address, and an identification number, which can be a Social Security number, ITIN, or a government-issued document like a passport.

While banks can ask for this information to verify your identity and comply with anti-money laundering regulations, they cannot refuse to open an account for you based solely on your immigration status.

As above, be sure to know your rights if you are denied an account. In many cases, your account may have a status applied to it to withhold tax, or maybe treat your account in a unique way for identification (“non-resident alien” or “resident alien” may appear on your account) and that is fine – so long as they give you the account.

Law Enforcement: Interactions with Police and Immigration Authorities

During interactions with law enforcement, officers may ask for your identification and inquire about your immigration status if they have a reasonable suspicion that you are in the country unlawfully.

However, it is essential to know your rights during these interactions.

You have the right to remain silent and not answer questions about your immigration status if you feel it may incriminate you. It is also important to note that local law enforcement officers are generally not authorized to enforce federal immigration laws, so they may not arrest you solely for being undocumented. I've connected before with lawyers about protesting and there are two great videos you should watch if you want to know your rights concerning speaking to the police:

Overall, while certain entities may have valid reasons to inquire about your identity and legal status, it is important to be aware of the limits to these questions and the anti-discrimination laws in place.

Like everything, knowing your rights is important to give yourself the best chances of achieving your goal of living in the USA.

Josh Pugh

Josh Pugh

A business founding, digital marketing focused, charity driving, community builder from South Australia, living in New York City. After moving in 2017, Josh realized that there was an opportunity to curate and help the community of expats who moved to the United States – and launched America Josh.View Author posts

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