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Can I Become a Citizen if I Have a Criminal Record?

QuestionLawful permanent residents of the United States who are trying to become U.S. citizens need to meet a number of requirements. One of these is that they must be of "good moral character." What exactly does that mean—and how might your past actions affect whether the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) considers you to be of good moral character?

In general, USCIS considers your conduct in the five years preceding your application for naturalization (citizenship). However, in some circumstances, they may look further back to evaluate "good moral character." You should also be aware that good moral character is more than the absence of black marks on your record. It requires an affirmative showing of positive behavior and character traits.

What Past Actions Put a Finding of "Good Moral Character" at Risk?

There's no "level" of criminal history that is insignificant enough for USCIS to ignore. That doesn't mean, necessarily, that having an arrest in your past is enough to doom your application for citizenship. If you were arrested, the case was dismissed, and you've otherwise shown yourself to be responsible with regard to your family, work, and community, an arrest may not be the end of your journey toward citizenship. However, any arrest complicates your situation significantly, and if you have been arrested, you should definitely retain an experienced immigration attorney. Conviction, including probation before judgments, obviously, complicates matters even further than an arrest or having charges filed against you.

There are certain circumstances which are taken so seriously that they will, at least temporarily, make you ineligible for U.S. citizenship. They include:

  • having spent 180 days or more in jail or prison for any crime;
  • conviction of, or admitting to, a crime of moral turpitude (including rape, kidnapping, child abuse, and other crimes that "shock the conscience");
  • operating a commercial vice enterprise or participating in illegal vice activities;
  • commission of any crime related to illegal drugs
  • conviction of two or more crimes, the combination of which earned you time in prison totaling at least five years;
  • conviction of two or more gambling crimes, or receiving the majority of your income from illegal gambling.

In addition, some crimes do make you permanently ineligible for U.S. citizenship. Unsurprisingly, these include murder, or having committed an aggravated felony, if your conviction took place after November 29, 1990. For very serious crimes, you might not only be barred from citizenship, but have your lawful permanent resident (green card) status taken away and be placed in removal proceedings.

Do I Have to Disclose All Arrests?

This is a simple question with a hard answer. Yes, you absolutely must disclose any arrests, and even any activity for which you could have been arrested. In fact, your Application for Naturalization (USCIS Form N-400) asks specifically:

  • Have you EVER been arrested, cited, or detained by any law enforcement officer (including any immigration official or any official of the U.S. armed forces) for any reason?
  • Have you EVER been charged with committing, attempting to commit, or assisting in committing a crime or offense?
  • Have you EVER committed,assisted in committing, or attempted to commit, a crime or offense for which you were NOT arrested?

Again, the goal of these questions is not to determine whether you were caught in a misdeed at a given point in time, but to get an overall picture of your moral character and whether you are the type of person who would make a good citizen. If you lie, and are discovered to have lied about a criminal past, no matter how minor it may seem, there will be consequences for your potential citizenship. Even if your parts of your story do not line up with the details USCIS is able to glean about you, a shadow will be cast over your application.

Immigration law in the area of "good moral character" is far too complex for this or any article to state, "If you did X, you should be fine, but if you did Y, your citizenship is in jeopardy." If you have a history of any criminal behavior whatsoever, you need an experienced immigration attorney to advise you. To learn more about how your past could affect your future citizenship, contact Howard County, MD immigration lawyer Van T. Doan.

Categories: Immigration Law