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Can a bad debt get you deported?

A reader was unaware of a medical debt until it went to collections. She intends to repay, but she's worried that the debt could get her barred from re-entering the US.

By Oct 31, 2013 11:06AM

This post comes from Gerri Detweiler at partner site on MSN MoneyCan your unpaid debts get you deported or barred from entering the U.S.?

A reader, who goes by the screen name "Chica," says she came to the U.S. with her mother-in-law, who received treatment for cancer in the U.S. As is typical in these situations, there were two sets of bills: one from the physicians and another from the hospital. Chica says they made payments regularly, and then left the U.S. When she checked on the bills recently, though, she discovered that the hospital had sent a balance of $9,900 to collections.

Past due stamp sitting on three bills. © Derek E. Rothchild, Stockbyte, Getty ImagesShe's not trying to get out of paying. In fact, she says, "We've always followed the rules." But she is confused about how to handle this bill now that it’s with a collection agency. More important, she is worried about whether this medical debt will affect her -- or her mother-in-law’s -- ability to re-enter the U.S. in the future.

She wants to know what impact it could have on future visas and visits.

"We love America," she adds. "It has (the) best health care, and (we)  love the friendliness of (people). We plan on visiting again and again. We’ve never been in that situation before and I am really worried about all this, and bad debt …"

The good news, for our reader and for others in this situation, is that bad debt generally won’t impact your ability to enter the U.S. or stay here. In fact, except in rare circumstances, you can’t be deported because you can’t pay your debt.

How the government sees your debt

"Normally, the United States does not look at credit" when considering visa applications, says Washington D.C.-based immigration attorney Dimo Michalloy. 

If a bad debt winds up in the court system, it is usually a civil proceeding that does not have to be disclosed. If criminal activity were involved, it would be a different matter, he says. As a general rule, though, being unable to pay your debts is not a criminal matter.

If Chica or her mother-in-law had worked in the U.S. and had unpaid taxes due, that could be a factor if they tried to apply for a green card (permanent residency) or U.S. citizenship, Michailov said. Similarly, unpaid child support can create problems for a foreign national in the U.S. 

"Non-payment of child support is a crime in certain circumstances," says Michailov, "and this can make a non-immigrant or immigrant foreign national subject to removal proceedings or barred from entering the U.S. in the future."

But generally, unpaid consumer debts aren’t a problem for those trying to get or maintain a visa, or even apply for U.S. citizenship.

Still, Chica and her mother-in-law aren't trying to skirt their debt, and if they want to receive services at that hospital in the future, it will be helpful for them to resolve these debts. If they can't afford to pay in full, they may want to consider settling the debt with the collection agency for a lump sum that is less than the total amount owed. Since they are out of the U.S. (and pretty much out of the reach of our legal system) the collector may be happy to settle the debt and be done with it.

Otherwise, they will need to work out a payment schedule to pay off the balance. Either way, they will want to get the agreement in writing and make sure to keep a careful record of their payments. In the future, they may want to try to negotiate cash rates with medical providers if they can afford to pay upfront.

Because they are not residents of the U.S., they don’t have to worry about these bad debts affecting their credit scores. If Chica decides to make the U.S. her home in the future, she’ll want to consider building credit as an immigrant. By then, she should have a better understanding of how our credit system works.

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Oct 31, 2013 4:21PM
Nov 1, 2013 2:26PM

That's what I love about our government - the double standards. If someone has a debt to ME as a business owner, no biggie - government says not much I can do about it - I win a judgment and hope they are willing to pay up.

If on the other hand, that person owes some TAX money - all Hell brakes loose - wage garnishment, bank account seizures, deportation or possible jail time. What a country!

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