Crimes of Moral Turpitude and Your U.S. Immigration Status

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

By , J.D.

If you are a foreign-born person hoping to immigrate to the United States, a record of crimes or certain behavior involving moral turpitude (a "CIMT") can create serious problems. For example:

  • If you are green card holder (a lawful permanent resident), and are convicted of a CIMT within five years of your last entry into the U.S., and the sentence that may be imposed for that crime is one year or longer, you might be removable/deportable. (See I.N.A. § 237(a)(2)(A)(i)(I), 8 U.S.C. § 1227(a)(2)(A)(i)(I).) Or, you could be blocked from receiving naturalized U.S. citizenship.
  • If you have not yet obtained a U.S. green card or visa but are applying for one, a CIMT might render you inadmissible, and therefore, not eligible for it. Even if you merely admit to someone that you have committed a CIMT (whether or not you were actually convicted of it), and the U.S. government learns of that, this can trigger a finding that you are inadmissible and therefore ineligible to receive a visa or green card. (See I.N.A. § 212(a)(2)(A)(i)(I), 8 U.S.C. § 1182(a)(2)(A)(i)(I)).

In short, CIMTs are a concern no matter where they took place or what stage of the immigration process you are at.

What If U.S. Immigration Authorities Accuse Me of Being Inadmissible to the U.S.?

If you are accused of being inadmissible to the U.S., you might still be able to successfully apply for your green card by also requesting a waiver of inadmissibility. A waiver means that U.S. immigration authorities agree to forgive, or overlook the ground of inadmissibility. But not all crimes can be waived.

The application is in most cases made to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) on Form I-601, and requires submitting extensive proof of why you, unlike other applicants, deserve the waiver.

What If U.S. Immigration Authorities Accuse Me of Being Removable From the U.S.?

If you are in the U.S. and are seemingly deportable owing to a crime, you might be able to apply for relief from removal, such as Cancellation of Removal.

However, favorable consideration is at the discretion of the immigration judge. Your approval is in no way guaranteed, and the judge will definitely take criminal history into account.

Exceptions to CIMT Inadmissibility

Within this tangled legal web, there are three important exceptions to being inadmissible based on a CIMT (though these won't help if you're deportable):

  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 if:

  • you have been convicted of only one CIMT
  • the crime's maximum sentence was no more than one year of prison time, and
  • 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 should not be found inadmissible.

However, if you were convicted of a second CIMT, you do not qualify for this exception unless the crimes occurred within a single act of misconduct. For example, if you committed an assault deemed a CIMT (some are not) after someone tried to stop you from shoplifting, these crimes could 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 CIMT while under the age of 18, 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. Juvenile crimes do not constitute convictions for immigration purposes, whether they took place in the U.S. or abroad.

The purely political offense exception is for situations where the supposed crime was committed along with other people, or in a movement, to accomplish a political purpose. For instance, an alleged crime committed in order to escape persecution or oppression for issues of a racial, religious, or similar political nature might qualify. But if you committed the acts alone, or have more than one crime on record, this exception won't work.

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 Immigration Case With a Possible CIMT on Record?

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 an Immigration Judge is apt to have the opposite result from that you seek and to further compound your immigration problems. In particular, a lie could result in a finding that you lack good moral character and thus destroy eligibility for any discretionary relief that the Immigration Judge might have otherwise intended to grant, such as cancellation of removal.

What you should do 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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