Applying for U.S. Citizenship With a DUI on Your Record

With a record of having driven under the influence of alcohol or drugs, it is possible for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to deny the N-400 application on the basis that the applicant lacks the required good moral character for naturalization.

One of the eligibility requirements to obtain naturalized U.S. citizenship is that the applicant be a person of demonstrably "good moral character," particularly in the last five years before applying. (These five years are called the "statutory period," meaning the length of time applicants need to have held permanent residence before naturalizing; it's three years for some people.)

But with a record of having driven under the influence of alcohol or drugs (commonly called a DUI, DWI, OWI, OUI, DUID, or something similar), it is possible for the officer of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to deny the application on the basis that the applicant lacks the required good moral character. Nevertheless, the decision is not automatic, as described in this article.

DUI and "Good Moral Character" for Naturalization Purposes

No cut-and-dried definition of "good moral character" or "GMC" can be found in U.S. immigration law. Most courts describe it as character measuring up to the standards of average citizens of the community where the person lives. Black's Law Dictionary has described it as a "pattern of behavior that is consistent with the community's current ethical standards" and "shows an absence of deceit or morally reprehensible conduct."

In other words, an applicant doesn't really have to have done anything special to show GMC. For most, it's enough to prove that they haven't broken the law and are productive members of the U.S. workforce or their community.

With a DUI on your record, however, you've got a strike against you. The first thing USCIS will likely want to know about are the facts of the crime, such as:

  • Was it your first DUI?
  • Was it your only DUI?
  • How impaired were you while driving?
  • Were there any aggravating circumstances, such as children in the car, injuries to others or a conviction under a statute that's written to require that your act was in some way intentional?

Every person's fact situation is different, as are every state's laws on driving while under the influence. That's part of why we say there's no automatic decision on naturalization applicants with DUIs; at least not if it's just one DUI. Read on for the implications of having committed two or more DUIs.

Two or More DUIs and Good Moral Character for Naturalization Purposes

If you have two or more DUIs on record, a USCIS Policy Alert from 2019 describes the implications, per an attorney general decision about a Board of Immigration Appeals case called Matter of Castillo-Perez. The decision creates a rebuttable
presumption of a lack of good moral character when an applicant commits two or more DUIs within the statutory period (five or three years before naturalizing).

"Rebuttable" is an important word here. It means you can still overcome and outweigh this "serious blemish" on your record; but you'll have to provide extra evidence to do so. A good starting point would be to show that you've taken steps to reform, for instance, by completing a program to address any substance abuse issues you might have. But while "commendable," according to this decision, efforts to yourself after multiple DUI convictions will not be sufficient by themselves. You'll need to show positive examples of your good moral character, as described next.

Outweighing Your DUI Record With Indications of Good Moral Character

No matter the facts of your DUI, for the sake of proving good moral character, you will definitely want to try to outweigh this incident by supplying USCIS with evidence that, in every other aspect or period of your life, you've behaved well. For example, supplementing your application with evidence of involvement in your community or church/religious organization, your record as a good employee, and your efforts on behalf of your family and children, and so forth, will be helpful.

Should You Mention the DUI Conviction on the N-400 Application?

YES. Under no circumstances should anyone knowingly omit requested information on their application for naturalization. The N-400 form specifically asks about any criminal convictions or charges, and if the applicant is found to have purposely omitted a DUI conviction or charge, then the consequences will quickly become much more severe. In any case, the DUI information will turn up during the background check (that's why they take your fingerprints during the biometrics appointment).

It's not likely, but applying for naturalized citizenship with a criminal record could potentially jeopardize your permanent resident status.

Consult With an Immigration Lawyer

This is not a situation where you should just submit your N-400 application and hope for the best. Get an attorney to analyze your situation and help you decide whether to apply for citizenship now (as opposed to waiting until the DUI is farther in your past). If you decide to apply now, the attorney can also help you present your good moral character in the most positive way possible, and attend your naturalization interview with you.

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