If you are hoping to apply for citizenship (naturalization) in the U.S. and you 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 into removal proceedings and possibly being stripped of your lawful permanent residence (green card) and deported to your home country.
We'll briefly review the reasons for this in this article, but do not 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, court precedents, and details that might apply in your particular situation.
In order to meet the basic 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 record, however, proving good moral character gets much harder. Even if you have 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, under the definition of "good moral character." (See §101(f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act or I.N.A.; 8 U.S.C. § 1101(f).) These include:
If any of the above descriptions matches you, you might not be barred from citizenship forever. But you will likely need to start over in counting up your five (or three) years of permanent residence (starting with the date of the crime) before applying for citizenship. But again, check with an attorney; we haven't listed every possible exception that might apply.
Also realize that, even after the three- or five-year "statutory period," USCIS can take the past crime into consideration when evaluating your moral character.
Also, certain crimes make you permanently ineligible for citizenship as a matter of law. These include:
Waiting for some number of years between the crime and submitting an N-400 will not help people who have one of these crimes on record, and deportation from the United States becomes highly likely.
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 once USCIS realizes what's on your record.
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 might be classified as a felony or even an aggravated felony under the federal immigration laws, or perhaps as a crime of moral turpitude.
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 might not understand how crimes are interpreted under the federal immigration laws.