Will a DUI Affect Your Permanent Resident Status?

Find out how a DUI may endanger a green card holder's status.

By , Attorney · Capital University Law School

While there are serious consequences for anyone charged with Driving Under the Influence or DUI, the consequences for an immigrant can be more severe. That's even true for an immigrant who has U.S. permanent resident status (a green card). Exactly what the implications will be depend on the circumstances of the conviction and whether or not you have left the United States and are seeking to return.

We'll review the various implications of a DUI below, but please do not attempt to analyze your own case or make immigration-related decisions, based primarily on this discussion. This is a complex area of the law, and the stakes are high. See an experienced immigration lawyer for a full analysis.

What's a DUI?

DUI stands for "driving while under the influence." While that usually means under the influence of alcohol, it also includes drugs, of both the legal and the illegal sorts. Some states call this crime DWI, for driving while intoxicated, or OVI, for operating a vehicle under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

The facts around each person's DUI can be hugely different. In a simple DUI, for instance, the person might not have high breath alcohol results, and might have simply been pulled over by the police for weaving on the road.

But many DUIs also involve an accident, reckless driving, bodily injury to others, or other aggravating factors, which can lead to multiple criminal convictions. Such factors will be taken into account when U.S. immigration authorities determine what the conviction means for immigration purposes.

Can a Person With a Green Card Be Deported for a DUI?

The short answer is yes. Having a green card doesn't protect you against removal from the U.S. in all situations. With a DUI on your record, you could be placed into immigration court (removal) proceedings, where an immigration judge will decide whether your crime matches one of the grounds of deportability.

If the judge rules against you, your green card could be revoked (taken away). You would then be removed from the United States and prohibited from reentry for a number of years.

The types of crimes that can make a green card holder deportable, as relevant to someone with a DUI conviction, include:

  • an aggravated felony; and even if your state's law called your crime a misdemeanor, realize that U.S. immigration authorities can use their own standards to call any crime an aggravated felony
  • a crime of moral turpitude, committed within five years of admission, for which the sentence could have been one year or more
  • a crime of violence
  • two separate crimes involving moral turpitude, and
  • an offense relating to a controlled substance.

Notice that few of these actually name particular crimes, whether DUIs or others. It will be up to the immigration authorities to examine the facts and circumstances of your case, and whether you have other crimes on your record, in order to decide whether the DUI matches one of the above grounds and makes you deportable.

What If You Leave the U.S. and Have a DUI on Record?

Even if you're not deportable, leaving the U.S. could create a new set of problems for you. A separate set of laws called the grounds of inadmissibility bars a person's entry to the U.S., either when applying for a U.S. visa or green card, or, if the person already has a green card, after the person has left the United States with a crime on record, committed a crime outside the U.S., or spent more than six months outside the United States.

In literal terms this means that you could take a trip, attempt to return to the U.S., and then be placed into proceedings to argue about whether your green card can be taken away because you've become inadmissible.

The grounds of inadmissibility are found in Section 212 of the I.N.A. (Immigration and Nationality Act). The potentially relevant grounds of inadmissibility for someone with a DUI include having:

  • convictions for one or more crimes of moral turpitude (CMTs, meaning an intentional crime that was base, vile, or contrary to social norms)
  • convictions of two or more crimes with a sentence of at least five years
  • a drug or alcohol addiction (which could trigger inadmissibility on medical grounds), and
  • having committed a crime involving a controlled substance, or even having personally admitted to a controlled substance violation without having actually been convicted.

A single DUI conviction, with no aggravating factors, is not usually found to fit any of the above descriptions.

However, multiple DUIs or DUIs with aggravating factors can be sufficient to meet one of more of the above grounds, making someone inadmissible to the United States after having left. For more detail, see What Crimes Make Immigrants Inadmissible to the U.S.?

Could a DUI Prevent You From Receiving U.S. Citizenship?

As a green card holder, you might wish to become a naturalized U.S. citizen as soon as possible, in order to avoid problems like being found inadmissible or deportable. However, to gain citizenship, you will need to prove that you've had good moral character for at least the last five years before submitting your application. With a DUI on your record, that gets more difficult.

It might be possible, most likely with the help of a lawyer, to deal with the issue by showing all your great community achievements in other ways, for example, through volunteer work and being a model employee and family member.

Nevertheless, your best shot at being approved for citizenship may be to wait to apply until enough time has gone by that you have established a recent clean record; ideally, five years since the date of conviction. It's also worth dealing with any underlying issues, such as alcohol addiction, perhaps by signing up for treatment. Make sure to comply with any court-ordered terms of probation, restitution, or other programs, as well.

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