Know Your Rights

Image of a gavel on a book

It’s important for you to be aware of the rights you have in the US as an international student or scholar: the rights for US citizens and permanent residents are not the same as rights for people in non-immigrant statuses such as F-1 and F-2 or J-1 and J-2. Here are some basics for you to remember.

Please note, content on this page is not intended as legal advice. For further guidance, we recommend you consult with an attorney.

Who is at greatest risk for being targeted by law enforcement officials within the US? 

The Immigrant Defense Project has highlighted that people who are removable under immigration law are those at greatest risk: people present in the US after being ordered removed, people without lawful immigration status, and people with lawful immigration status who have certain criminal priors. 

If you are stopped for questioning with the US...

You have the right to remain silent

The Immigrant Defense Project has provided these recommendations:

  • If you are choosing to remain silent, they suggest you tell the officer that you are exercising this right by saying “I don’t want to answer any questions without a lawyer.” They also recommend for you to remain silent or continue to repeat “I don’t want to answer any questions without a lawyer” even if they keep asking you questions.
  • They suggest you also ask if you are free to leave. If law enforcement officials say yes, then leave.
You have the right to speak to a lawyer
  • The ACLU recommends that you ask for a list of free or low-cost legal services if you do not have an attorney (see page 8 of their Know Your Rights card) and that you not sign anything without first talking to a lawyer.
You have the right to refuse search

The ACLU has provided further clarification on this right (see their Know Your Rights card):

  • You do not have to consent to a search of you or your belongings but the ACLU highlights that “if you are not a US citizen and an immigration agent requests your immigration papers, you must show them if you have them with you. They recommend you carry your immigration documents with you at all times.
  • Also, an officer may pat you down if you are suspected of carrying a weapon, so the ACLU recommends you keep your hands where an officer could see them.
You have the right to refuse entry

The American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) emphasizes that an officer only has the right to enter your place of residence if they have a search warrant. If they do have a warrant, AILA recommends you ask them to slide it under the door or hold it up to a window. A search warrant is only valid if it has the correct name, correct address, and a judge’s signature. 

  • If you are presented with a valid search warrant, if possible, take a picture of the document.
  • Tell the officer if you are exercising this right and they have no search warrant with a judge’s signature: say “I do not consent to you entering my home."

If you are stopped at a border when entering the US...

An officer generally can ask about citizenship, your travel itinerary, and they can search you bags

See the ACLU information on What to Do When Encountering Law Enforcement at Airports and Other Ports of Entry into the US

  • If you are not a US citizen or permanent resident, you may be denied entry if you refuse to answer any question. However, there are many questions that you are not required to answer. See this ACLU information to better understand which questions you must answer and which questions you do not have to answer.
  • The ACLU highlights that an officer cannot perform any stops, searches, detentions, or removals based on religion, race, national origin, gender, ethnicity, or political beliefs.
Concerning electronic devices
  • Agents can confiscate your device and they may keep it. If this happens, the ACLU recommends for you to get a receipt with information about your device and contact information of the officer who has confiscated your possessions for you to follow up (see this ACLU travel FAQs page and their article on electronic devices at the border for further details).
  • The ACLU also emphasizes that if you are not a US citizen or permanent resident, you may be denied entry if you refuse to provide your password. If you are unsure what to do, they recommend you speak to a lawyer before traveling.

If you feel your rights have been violated...

The ACLU advises (on their Know Your Rights card) that you:

  • Not physically resist or threaten any officer.
  • Write down everything you can remember, get contact information from witnesses, and take photographs of any injuries as soon as possible after the interaction.
  • File a written complaint with the agency’s complaint board.
We also recommend that you contact the Office of Global Services.

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