Applying for US Citizenship with a Criminal Record
If you are applying for citizenship (naturalization) in the U.S. and have a criminal record, you should consult an immigration attorney first as the laws in this area are highly complex. Certain types of crimes will not only prevent a person from qualifying for U.S. citizenship, but could result in the applicant being placed in removal proceedings and deported from the United States.
In order to meet the requirements for U.S citizenship, you must show good moral character for at least the five years of permanent residence leading up to your citizenship application. (Or three years if you’re allowed to apply early based on marriage to a U.S. citizen.) This is done by showing that you’ve been a responsible member of your community, family, and workplace. With a crime on your record, however, proving good moral character gets much harder. Even if you’ve committed only a minor crime, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) could look at this and decide that, in combination with other aspects of your activities or lifestyle, you haven’t shown the required good moral character.
Crimes That Permanently Bar Applicants From Citizenship
If you have ever been convicted of one of the following, you are permanently denied U.S. citizenship:
- murder, or
- an aggravated felony (if the conviction was after November 29, 1990).
These bars are automatic. In other words, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) officer who interviews you and reviews your citizenship application will have no choice but to deny your application for naturalization.
In addition, you will probably be placed into removal (deportation) proceedings once USCIS realizes that one of these crimes is on your record.
USCIS’s definition of aggravated felony includes many crimes that you would expect; such as rape, sexual abuse of a minor, drug trafficking, firearm trafficking, racketeering, running a prostitution business, child pornography, and fraud of $10,000 or more. However, the immigration definition of aggravated felony also includes crimes that might surprise you, including some that local and state courts sometimes classify as misdemeanors. For example, any crime of violence, or theft or burglary that resulted in a prison term of one year or more will be considered an aggravated felony. Resisting arrest has been found to be a crime of violence. Even driving while under the influence of alcohol is sometimes considered a crime of violence, particularly if it involves reckless or intentional behavior.
Crimes That Temporarily Bar Applicants From Citizenship
Some crimes make a person only temporarily ineligible for citizenship. If, after the date you committed the crime, you wait out the same number of years that you must have to meet your permanent residence requirement – typically five years, or three years for applicants married to and living with a U.S. citizen for all that time — you may be able to receive U.S. citizenship. The USCIS can still consider your past actions in reviewing your application — and choose to deny your application. But at least you will have a chance to prove that the good side of your character outweighs your past bad acts.
Some crimes make you temporarily ineligible for citizenship according to law. (See Section 101(f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act or I.N.A.)
- operating a commercial vice enterprise or participating in illegal vice activities
- having been convicted of, or admitted to, a crime involving moral turpitude
- having spent 180 or more days in jail or prison for any crime
- having committed any crime related to illegal drugs other than a single offense involving 30 grams or less of marijuana
- having been convicted of two or more crimes, the combination of which got you a total prison sentence of at least five years
- receiving most of your income from illegal gambling, or having been convicted of two or more gambling crimes.
If you have committed a crime that is not on any of the lists described above, you are not automatically barred from citizenship. Nevertheless, USCIS can still use its discretion to claim that your crimes demonstrate a lack of good moral character.
In making its judgment on your character, USCIS considers such factors as whether anyone was injured, whether you cooperated with the police and the courts, and whether you were drinking or carrying an illegal weapon.
The important thing is to realize that there’s no easy way to categorize a crime. For example, many people believe that if a crime is “just a misdemeanor” it won’t affect the person’s immigration status. But a crime that’s called a misdemeanor in one state may still be classified as a felony, or even an aggravated felony, under the federal immigration laws, or perhaps as a crime of moral turpitude.
Seek assistance from an attorney who specializes in the overlap between immigration and criminal law. Don’t rely solely on advice from your criminal attorney, who may not understand how crimes are interpreted under the immigration laws.
Contact one of our experienced immigration lawyers in New York today at 718-407-0871 or online at https://www.prizant-law.com if you need help with Applying for US Citizenship with a Criminal Record or any other solutions to your immigration problems.
Contributed by Svetlana Prizant, an Award Winning New York Immigration Lawyer
Call or visit Prizant Law at:
118-21 Queens Blvd Suite 507
Forest Hills, NY 11375
(718) 407 0871