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Does a Background Check Reveal Immigration Status?

By Dale Marshall
Updated May 23, 2024
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Background checks are conducted for a variety of reasons in the US by many different individuals and organizations. Some will be initiated specifically to determine someone's immigration status, while others will not seek that information. In most cases, however, the subject of a background check is asked for authorization to conduct the check, and the authorization request will note the information being sought. When a background check is conducted by law enforcement, typically in connection with issuing a security clearance in relation to a high-level government job, or as a routine investigation prior to a criminal trial, one's citizenship and/or immigration status is routinely determined.

The most common form of background check currently performed in the US is related to employment. Employers typically will request information from job applicants, together with permission to conduct a background check, in order to verify the information provided on the job application, as well as to learn more about the applicant. Most employers, for example, will conduct a background check to uncover any criminal activity on an applicant's part.

Employers in the US are prohibited by immigration rules from hiring those who are not legally authorized to work. including illegal aliens or foreign tourists. The government provides resources for employers to verify that a job applicant has legal working status by reviewing their Social Security Number (SSN) and Alien Registration number, if any. Many employers routinely use those resources as part of their routine background checking procedure. Thus, it's likely that a background investigation connected with potential employment will reveal the subject's immigration status. Employers may not request an applicant's SSN until a formal job offer is made and accepted, although in many cases, job offers are contingent upon satisfactory completion of the background check.

Landlords are another group that will typically have a background check performed on applicants for rental housing. Some jurisdictions have enacted legislation requiring that landlords ascertain the immigration status of potential renters. Many landlords object to such legislation, arguing that other merchants aren't required to verify this information.

Background checks are commonly conducted by third parties, often investigative agencies. Many simply contact the references, former employers, and educational institutions provided by the subject, in order to verify the accuracy of this information. Most such organizations will be very circumspect about the information they provide, restricting their responses to confirming data provided, so it's unlikely that adverse information about a subject's immigration status will be reported by these sources.

Some investigative agencies will also research public records, including motor vehicle records, court records, and similar information sources. Some of the information derived from such investigations may be used to infer information about a subject's immigration status. For instance, most states in the United States will issue driver's licenses only to legal residents.

A credit check is a particular type of background check that concentrates on the applicant's financial history, specifically with respect to the applicant's history of using credit within certain guidelines and honoring credit obligations. A credit report obtained from one of the three credit bureaus might contain information that could lead one to make a judgment about the subject's immigration status, such as a history of residences in a particular foreign country, but a credit report is designed to evaluate an individual's credit history, not immigration status.

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Discussion Comments

By RoyalSpyder — On Feb 14, 2014

@Viranty - No, unfortunately. I don't think there are any clear cut ways for felons to get employment, unless they become their own employer. As an example, my friend who was fired from Ruby Tuesdays is now self employed, although I don't know how all that works. On another note, it's amazing how the consequences of our actions can have such an impact on our future. Sometimes, it's only through facing the consequences that we learn from our mistakes.

By Viranty — On Feb 14, 2014

@RoyalSpyder - It's really hard for people who have committed crimes to get any sort of employment. Notice how in this day and age, generally every online application asks if you've been convicted of a felony in the last 10 years. However, I don't want to sound harsh, but they generally brought it on themselves. If they can't do the time, then they shouldn't have done the crime. In fact, is there any way for felons to get employment in this day and age?

By RoyalSpyder — On Feb 14, 2014

@Chmander - You make an excellent point. However, in my opinion, I feel that background checks are much more valuable online then they are in the "real world". When in the real world, it's easy to lie about your history, and to claim things that aren't true. However, when online, background checks are much more efficient, and things are a lot easier to trace. As an example, I had a friend who worked at Ruby Tuesdays. Though he was employed, he was later dismissed when they found out that he was a felon. He had lied about his background in order to get employment.

By Chmander — On Feb 13, 2014

Whether it's in regards to immigration status, or even applying for a job, I feel that background checks are very important. They are a great way to get to know a person, especially for legal reasons. On another note, they allow you to obtain information about one's background that may be suspicious.

By Cageybird — On Jan 19, 2014

I have to wonder if someone has no documentation at all, how would a background check prove or disprove immigration status? I'm an American citizen, but I don't carry around a copy of my birth certificate everywhere. If an employer wanted to make sure I was legal, they'd probably have to ask me some questions before starting a background check. Maybe a background checker could find my birth certificate, but maybe not.

I would think this would apply to immigrants, too. Unless that applicant voluntarily discloses his or her birthplace, a standard background check may not discover that information automatically. Some undocumented workers might do better by adopting a don't ask, don't volunteer policy.

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