Written by attorney Daniel Shanfield

How a criminal record affects citizenship eligibility

If you've ever been arrested for any reason, you should seriously consider consulting with an experienced immigration lawyer before applying for US citizenship. This is a very complicated area of U.S. immigration law. Not only could USCIS turn down your citizenship application; you could risk deportation by bringing your criminal history to USCIS’s attention.

What is good moral character?

To naturalize, you must show good moral character for the 3 or 5 year period (depending on whether or not you are married to a US citizen) prior to application for naturalization and swearing in. This is called the “statutory period".

The burden is on you to be honest and to show good moral character. In being truthful, it is your obligation to submit all conviction records with the citizenship application. Submitting these documents is best done with the help of an experienced immigration lawyer, who can obtain the right kind of court records and present damaging evidence in the best light possible.

What crimes might be considered "bad" moral character?

  • “Crimes involving moral turpitude", which are offenses that involve harming other people or damaging property, theft and fraud crimes, as well as sex or family crimes, committed during the statutory period.

  • Controlled substance violations committed during the statutory period.

  • Imprisonment for 180 days or more during the statutory period.

  • Providing false testimony during the statutory period to obtain an immigration benefit.

  • Involvement during the statutory period with prostitution.

  • Serious unlawful gambling offenses committed during the statutory period.

Please note that USCIS may not approve your citizenship case if you have filed the naturalization application while on probation or parole.

USCIS may also deny good moral character for bad acts during the statutory period not on this list. This conduct might include failure to provide child support and failure to pay taxes. If you have divorced during the statutory period or have a formal or informal child custody agreement, you might be affected by these issues. If so, you’ll want to clear this up before applying for US citizenship.

Offenses prior to the 3 or 5 year statutory period

Certain offenses before the statutory period count heavily against naturalization, with some crimes so serious that you may never be able to show good moral character, and therefore never become a citizen. Many of these offenses could also get you deported, so it's essential to review your case with an attorney before applying for US citizenship.

Naturalization applicants are disqualified from showing good moral character if convicted of murder or other crimes committed on or after 11/29/1990 that are categorized as “aggravated felonies".

Aggravated felonies include: drug trafficking, kidnapping, fraud crimes with loss over $10,000, crimes of violence or theft crimes with a sentence of one year or more, child pornography, and perjury or forgery offenses with a sentence of one year or more. Aggravated felonies will almost always lead DHS to file immigration charges against you and begin deportation proceedings.

In assessing your good moral character, USCIS can also look at bad acts before the statutory period, if during the current 3 or 5 year period period you haven’t shown rehabilitation, or if the past bad acts somehow relate to the Applicant’s current moral character. Evidence of good works can really help here, including proof of volunteer activity, charitable giving, alcohol and drug sobriety, and marriage reconciliation in domestic violence cases.

Applying for US citizenship when you have a criminal record can lead to deportation proceedings. That's why it's critical to have a lawyer advise you on the risks are so you can make an informed decision. However, you may still have an opportunity to get your citizenship.

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