"Moral Turpitude" & Your Green Card Under Immigration Law

Crimes or other behavior can be viewed as "moral turpitude", and cause serious immigration problems, including the loss of your permanent resident status (green card).

Crimes or certain behavior involving moral turpitude can have serious immigration consequences, no matter what stage of the immigration process you are at. For example:

  • If you are green card holder (a lawful permanent resident), and you are convicted of a crime of moral turpitude (CMT) within five years of your last entry into the U.S., you may be removable/deportable.
  • If you have not yet obtained your green card but are applying for one, a CMT may render you inadmissible, and therefore, not eligible. Even just admitting that you have committed a CMT (without conviction) can trigger inadmissibility and denial of a green card.
  • If you have committed a CMT, are in the U.S., but have yet to receive your green card, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) may still place you in removal proceedings where you will be required to convince an immigration judge that according to the law you were not inadmissible upon arrival in the U.S., and thus, are still eligible for the green card.  

What if I Am Inadmissible or Removable?

If you are found inadmissible, you can apply to adjust your status (get your green card) only if granted a waiver of inadmissibility. A waiver means that the immigration authorities agree to forgive, or overlook the ground of inadmissibility. The application is made on Form I-601, and requires submitting extensive proof of why you, unlike other applicants, deserve the waiver.

If you are deportable but not inadmissible, you are eligible to apply for relief from removal, such as Cancellation of Removal, without the waiver. However, even if you meet the basic qualifications for either the waiver or for adjustment, favorable consideration of these are at the discretion of immigration judge and your approval is in no way guaranteed.    

Exceptions to Inadmissibility

Within this tangled web, there are three exceptions to being inadmissible for a CMT:  

1) Petty offense exception
2) Youthful offender exception, and
3) Purely political offense exception.

The petty offense exception, which is the most commonly used, applies only if:  

1) You have been convicted of only one CMT;
2) The crime did not carry a maximum sentence of more than one year of imprisonment; and,
3) You were not sentenced to more than six months imprisonment.  

If all three of the above apply to your situation, you qualify for the petty offense exception and are not inadmissible. However, if you are convicted of a second CMT, you do not qualify for the exception unless the crimes occurred within a single act of misconduct. For example, if you committed an assault deemed a CMT (some are not) as a reaction to being caught shoplifting, these crimes may be deemed as having arisen from a single act of misconduct. In that case, the two charges are rolled together (for immigration purposes) and do not trigger ineligibility for the exception.  

The Youthful Offender Exception applies to persons convicted of only one CMT while the person was under age 18 and where the commission of the crime, and release from imprisonment, occurred more than five years before the person’s application for admission to the United States. This exception is rarely used, because it applies only to crimes committed by juveniles and transferred to adult court. Crimes committed by juveniles and tried in juvenile court, whether in the U.S. or abroad, do not constitute convictions for immigration purposes.  

The Purely Political Offense Exception applies to a CMT committed along with other people, or in a movement, to accomplish a political purpose, for example to escape persecution or oppression for issues of a racial, religious, or similar political nature.   If the act is committed by an individual acting alone, the exception does not apply.   Again, it also does not apply if more than one CMT is involved.

NOTE: The immigration laws treat crimes involving drugs and admitted drug use as a separate category, and the above exceptions will not apply.  

What Is the Likely Outcome of My Case?

The outcome of your case is hard to predict. Different people’s cases are often treated differently, even if the facts seem identical or very similar. Adjustment of status in removal proceedings is also always at the discretion of the Immigration Judge.

Does that mean you should attempt to hide your criminal record? Absolutely not: Lying to the DHS or Immigration Judge is apt to have the opposite result from that you seek and to further compound your immigration problems. For example, if you qualified for relief from removal for CMTs, a lie could result in a finding that you lack good moral character and eliminate your eligibility for any discretionary relief that the Immigration Judge may have otherwise intended to grant. What you should do, however, is consult an immigration attorney for a full analysis of your case, and an exploration of any exceptions or applicable waiver opportunities.

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