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immigration rights

Know your rights: Immigration rights and protections

Whether you are here in the United States for a short visit or a long-term stay, you may be confused about what your rights are in this country. Like citizens, immigrants and visitors on a visa have certain rights and protections. Some protections are provided by the US Constitution and some states grant rights such as driving privileges.

Immigration Constitutional rights

Many citizens came to the US as immigrants. Immigrants who are citizens have the same rights as every other citizen. The US Constitution protects both citizens and non-citizens. Immigration Constitutional rights provide freedom of speech and religion, protection from unreasonable search and seizures, the right to a jury trial, protection from self-incrimination, and the protection from “cruel and unusual” punishment to citizens and non-citizens. Longstanding Supreme Court precedent, for the most part, restricts states from discriminating against non-citizens. Non-citizens, temporary workers and visa holders are all protected, but may not have access to specific citizen rights.


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Do I have to be a US citizen to vote?

In most cases, yes. To vote in US federal and state elections, you need to be a US citizen. However, some local elections may allow non-citizen voting. Some states may not allow people with certain felon statuses to vote. Contact your local election office to see if non-citizens can vote in local elections. Those who have dual citizenship in the US and another country, are allowed to vote in US elections. Other requirements include that you are over 18 years of age and that you have met your state’s residency requirements.

Do I need to be a US citizen to get a driver’s license?

Many types of non-citizens can obtain driving rights in the US. State laws control who is allowed to be issued driver’s licenses.

  • Undocumented immigrants. Only a few states issue licenses to undocumented immigrants such as Washington, New Mexico and Illinois.
  • DACA. Young immigrants who have been granted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) may be able to obtain driver’s licenses in the states they reside in. Many states approve driver’s licenses for DACA recipients including California, Texas and Florida.
  • Green cards. Most states will allow those with a Green Card to apply for a license.
  • Visitors. Foreign nationals with a visa may be able to rent a car if they have a license issued from their country as well as an International Driver’s Permit (IDP).

What rights do I have with a Student or Tourist Visa?

Visa holders have certain protections while they are staying in the United States. Most visitors to the US have the same protections as citizens, but they do not have the same rights as citizens. Protections include protection from abuse and domestic violence, the right to a fair wage, protection from sex trafficking, protection from discrimination, and more. Visiting students or tourists cannot vote or obtain a US driver’s license. To learn more, visit the US Visa webpage.

What protections are provided for temporary workers?

The US has in place numerous laws to protect its temporary workforce. Recently a lot of effort has been put into protection from human trafficking.

Basic rights and protections include:

  • Right to a fair wage
  • Freedom from discrimination
  • Freedom from sexual harassment and exploitation
  • Rights to a safe workplace
  • Rights to request help from a union and labor rights groups
  • Right to leave an abusive work situation

If you feel your rights have been violated, you may choose to speak with an immigration lawyer.

What is a Sanctuary City?

“Sanctuary cities” such as San Francisco, New Orleans, Newark and Seattle are cities who have chosen to limit their cooperation with federal immigration enforcement agencies. In general, the goal is to protect those who commit minor crimes, such as a traffic violation, from deportation. That does not mean a non-citizen is 100 percent protected in those cities, especially if a serious crime is committed (or suspected). Not all sanctuary cities provide the same protections, you can learn about their policies by visiting your city’s website.

If you are hoping to become a US citizen or find work in the US, see Types of Immigration Forms to access some common immigration documents.

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