Effect of Good "Moral Character" on Immigration Applications

When people apply for a U.S. immigration benefit, the government will almost always consider whether they have good moral character. Learn about the bars to a good moral character finding, and how to prove one's good moral character.

By , J.D. · University of Washington School of Law

In almost every situation in which people apply for a U.S. immigration benefit, whether they're avoiding deportation or applying for citizenship, the U.S. government will consider their moral character. Good moral character is especially important in situations where the decision-maker has some discretion; in other words, isn't obligated to grant the immigration benefit without believing that the applicant somehow deserves the favor.

In many situations, however, applicants are required to show "good moral character" as an explicit part of the application. For example, for naturalized U.S. citizenship or cancellation of removal for non-lawful permanent residents, applicants must show that they have had good moral character for a certain period of time, as specified by federal statute.

How U.S. Immigration Law Describes Good Moral Character

Good moral character doesn't mean being a saint. It basically means that your behavior measures up to the standards of average citizens living in your community. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and the Department of State (DOS) decide whether an applicant has met the GMC requirement on a case-by-case basis.

Bars to a Good Moral Character Finding

U.S. immigration law provides specific guidance as to what isn't "good moral character" at Immigration and Nationality Act Section 101(f), 8 U.S.C. 1101(f).

If you commit certain acts or hold a certain status within the time period that the particular benefit you're seeking requires showing good moral character for, you can be found to automatically lack it, regardless of the underlying circumstances of the event. The acts that bar a good moral character finding include:

  • being a habitual drunkard
  • deriving most of one's income from illegal gambling or having been convicted of two or more gambling offenses
  • becoming inadmissible for any of various offenses (such as prostitution, polygamy, controlled substance offenses, crimes involving moral turpitude, and drug trafficking)
  • giving false testimony to obtain an immigration benefit
  • having been confined to a penal institution for 180 days or more in total, and
  • having been convicted of an aggravated felony at any time.

In addition, the U.S. government can consider other acts that fall outside of the specific statutory period in assessing good moral character, and may determine that these show that you lack good moral character.

How to Prove Good Moral Character to the Satisfaction of U.S. Immigration Authorities

Regardless of the type of application, you will probably be asked to provide evidence of your clean criminal and immigration record, thus hopefully overcoming the bars to good moral character described above.

But if you're dealing with the type of application that explicitly requires proving good moral character, or if you have some minor blot on your record that needs outweighing, you might need to provide more than that. This could include, for example:

  • a personal statement from you describing your life, family, work, and volunteer activities
  • letter from an employer explaining that you're a good worker
  • letter from your place of worship describing your involvement there and importance to the community, and
  • letter from organizations with which you volunteer.

The more detail provided in such a statement or letter, the better. In other words, a letter saying that, "My employee Mr. X has good moral character," is far weaker than one saying "My employee Mr. X has been a trusted assistant to the director for 12 years, always available for extra work and able to scrupulously maintain confidential information."

How Moral Character Factors Into Discretionary Decisions by Immigration Officers

In some situations, you might not be specifically required to show good moral character, but it will still be considered before approving your application. For example, your moral character might be considered indirectly, or might be taken into account in an officer's legal discretion.

Applications for an immigrant or nonimmigrant (temporary) visa, for instance, do not specifically require that you show good moral character. But they do require that you have not committed certain acts, like certain crimes, fraud, or immigration violations. These grounds of inadmissibility are thus tied to your good moral character.

In addition, when considering visa applications, the U.S. government can deny admission as a discretionary matter even if you are not technically inadmissible. Also, a history of questionable moral acts might make the officer wonder whether you will comply with the basic terms of the visa you're applying for, as opposed to flouting the law and, say, failing to leave the U.S. when you are supposed to.

If you are denied an immigration benefit as a matter of the government's discretion, it is usually difficult to appeal it. It is therefore important, before you apply for a visa, green card, or other immigration benefit, to know whether the benefit has an explicit or implicit good moral character requirement and what acts might disqualify you from the benefit.

Also be prepared to address any negative issues in your case, even if they do not automatically bar you from the eligibility for the benefit. It is better to present a strong application affirmatively than try to reverse a negative decision against you.

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