Criminal Charges or Convictions on Your U.S. Citizenship Application

If you're applying for U.S. Citizenship and you have a criminal record, consider getting legal advice before you proceed. Here's why.

If you are hoping to apply for citizenship (naturalization) in the U.S. and have a criminal record, do not even think of turning in your application without talking to an immigration attorney first. You not only risk being denied citizenship, but, if the crime is serious enough, of being placed in removal proceedings and possibly being stripped of your lawful permanent residence (green card) and deported back to your home country.

We'll briefly review the reasons for this in this article, but don't attempt to analyze how your own crime fits into this analysis. The laws in this area are highly complex, and it would take whole books to explain the case laws, precedents, and details that might apply in your particular situation.

Good Moral Character and U.S. Citizenship

In order to meet the requirements for U.S. citizenship, you must prove good moral character for at least the five years of permanent residence leading up to your citizenship application. (Or three years if you're allowed to apply early based on marriage to a U.S. citizen.)

You don't have to be a saint, but it helps if you can show that you've been a responsible member of your community, family, and workplace. With a crime on your record, however, proving good moral character gets much harder. Even if you've committed only a minor crime, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) could look at this and decide that, in combination with other aspects of your activities or lifestyle, you haven't shown the required good moral character.

Some crimes actually make you temporarily ineligible for citizenship according to law. (See Section 101(f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act or I.N.A.) These include:

  • operating a commercial vice enterprise or participating in illegal vice activities
  • having been convicted of, or admitted to, a crime involving moral turpitude
  • having spent 180 or more days in jail or prison for any crime
  • having committed any crime related to illegal drugs other than a single offense involving 30 grams or less of marijuana
  • having been convicted of two or more crimes, the combination of which got you a total prison sentence of at least five years
  • receiving most of your income from illegal gambling, or having been convicted of two or more gambling crimes.

If any of the above descriptions matches you, you will need to start over in counting up your five (or three) years of permanent residence before applying for citizenship. And even then, USCIS can take the crime into consideration when evaluating your moral character.

Also, certain crimes make you permanently ineligible for citizenship as a matter of law.  These include:

  • murder, or
  • an aggravated felony if you were convicted after November 29. 1990.

Crimes and Removability From the U.S.

Certain types of crimes will not only prevent a person from qualifying for U.S. citizenship, but could result in the applicant being placed in removal proceedings and deported from the United States. As very brief examples, you can be removed for so-called aggravated felonies, as well as crimes involving moral turpitude, drugs, firearms, domestic violence, and more.

The important thing is to realize that there's no easy way to categorize a crime. For example, many people believe that if a crime is "just a misdemeanor" it won't affect the person's immigration status. But a crime that's called a misdemeanor in one state may still be classifed as a felony, or even an aggravated felony, under the federal immigration laws, or perhaps as a crime of moral turpitude. 

Getting Legal Help

Seek assistance from an attorney who specializes in the overlap between immigration and criminal law. Don't rely solely on advice from your criminal attorney, who may not understand how crimes are interpreted under the immigration laws.

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