Can I Still Become A U.S. Citizen With A Criminal Record?

What should you do if you are a lawful permanent resident (LPR) eligible to become a naturalized citizen of the U.S. with a criminal record? A close examination of any prior criminal convictions by a qualified attorney is critical before submitting the N-400 naturalization application to USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services).

You must show Good Moral Character for the last 5 years.

One of the requirements for becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen is that you have “good moral character” (GMC) for the five years leading up to your citizenship application. (This could be three years if you gained your green card through marriage to a U.S. citizen). So what exactly is good moral character?

Some crimes are a Permanent Bar to citizenship.

Most people would understand that a past conviction for murder or an aggravated felony would disqualify a person for becoming a citizen – see this list from the Dept. of Homeland Security on what constitutes an aggravated felony. These types of crimes are considered to be a “permanent bar” to having good moral character, in other words, if your crime is on this list, you will never be granted citizenship.

Other crimes are only a Conditional Bar to citizenship.

Did you know that failure to pay child support is one of the “conditional bars” to good moral character? There are a number of offenses that fall into the conditional category, some of which consist of “crimes involving moral turpitude” (CIMT), meaning that the conduct involved in the crime is contrary to the rules of morality and duties owed to society. In this conditional category are CIMT acts like theft, serious bodily harm, sex-related offenses and spousal or child abuse, as well as other offenses such as drug violations, illegal gambling, voting as a citizen when you are not, having an extramarital affair that destroys the marriage, and being a habitual drunkard, just to name a few. Here is a complete list of offenses that are a conditional bar to GMC.

Your complete criminal history will be examined, even beyond the past 5 years.

For crimes involving moral turpitude (CIMT), if you only committed one of these crimes, you may still qualify for citizenship because it could be considered an exception if this is the only crime you have ever committed. This explains how these types of offenses are a conditional bar and not a permanent bar to being able to show good moral character. The other reason they are considered conditional is because if such a crime was committed prior to the five years leading up to the submission of your naturalization application, they may not pose a bar to citizenship. The reason I say “may not” is because so many other factors need to be taken into account. Moreover, USCIS can even go back further into your past than five years if you have a CIMT on record, so just because you have had a clean record in the last five years, does not necessarily give you a free pass!

Some crimes may not impact your ability to show Good Moral Character.

There are some offenses that are not considered a conditional bar to good moral character. An example of this is a single offense for possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana. If that is your only criminal record, then this would likely not be a bar to proving good moral character.

Balance the bad with the good.

Positive factors in your history such as evidence of community involvement through your church or volunteer organizations can mitigate some negative past mistakes. But remember that it can’t just be your word – you must always document everything with notarized affidavits from people who can attest to your good deeds and good moral character.

You will need original documents for police reports and court dispositions.

One of the most common mistakes I see is applicants not bringing to the naturalization interview the required original or certified copy of the police report and the court disposition for any past crime they were ever charge with or convicted of. If you don’t have an original police report you will need to visit or write to the police department where the incident occurred and request it. The same goes for the court disposition which details the outcome of the conviction – the document must be stamped by the court that it is a true certified copy. Even though these documents are not needed when you submit your application, USCIS will request that you provide them later.

It can be incredibly complex and challenging to determine how your past crimes may affect your ability to become a naturalized citizen of the United States. There are no hard line rules – it’s very subjective and a lot can depend on the immigration officer who reviews your case. Not only can you not be eligible for naturalization if you have a criminal record, but you could lose your green card and maybe even get deported!

When you apply for naturalization, think of it as handing over your entire past history to USCIS for them to examine and determine if you are worthy of citizenship, or, if you are unworthy of lawful permanent resident status (having a green card).

Your immigration attorney will examine your past history in detail and consult with you on the best options to take. Becoming a U.S. citizen can be a wonderful opportunity, but not if the risk is too great.

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Nadine Heitz, attorney at Heitz Immigration Law, provides services to her clients for obtaining visas, green cards, and citizenship, as well as deportation defense. Call us at 561-290-0101 or toll free at 844-224-0139.