Crimes That Will Prevent You From Receiving U.S. Citizenship

NOLO – by Ilona Bray, J.D.

If you are a green card holder applying for U.S. citizenship through the process known as naturalization, one important question will be whether you have ever been arrested for, charged with, or convicted of a crime. Although not every crime creates an outright bar to receiving U.S. citizenship, some do, while others will raise serious questions about whether you have the necessary good moral character.  

You will need to see an immigration attorney for a full check of your record and what it means in immigration law terms. To give you an idea of what your attorney will need to analyze, this article offers a brief overview of the most serious crimes that will permanently bar a person from citizenship and the various other crimes that will block or delay qualifying for citizenship.

When we talk about “crimes” in this article, we aren’t referring only to crimes committed in the United States. A criminal record from overseas counts as well, unless it’s an instance where a refugee or asylee was a victim of inappropriate government prosecution.

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.

What is an “aggravated felony?” This is an important question, and you can’t tell the answer simply by looking at the name of the crime you were convicted of. 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.

Helping to smuggle an alien into the United States is also considered an aggravated felony — unless it was a first offense to help a spouse, child, or parent. Note that this exception doesn’t cover smuggling other family members, such as grandparents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, fiancés, or friends.

Many stories exist of immigrants who innocently or negligently committed criminal acts that are later classified as aggravated felonies — for example, someone who befriends a drug dealer, buys a fake green card, or has sex with an underage girlfriend. Because this area is so complex, see a lawyer if you believe your criminal record could affect your citizenship application.

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.

We say “may” because 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.

Here is a summary list of the crimes that make you temporarily ineligible for citizenship:

  • You operated a commercial vice enterprise — for example, were a prostitute, ran a call-girl ring, or sold pornography.
  • You participated in illegal vice activities—for example,  hired a prostitute.
  • You have been convicted of or admitted to a crime involving moral turpitude, such as fraud.
  • You spent 180 days or more in jail or prison for any crime.
  • You committed any crime related to illegal drugs other than a single offense involving 30 grams or less of marijuana.
  • You have been convicted of two or more crimes, the combination of which got you a total prison sentence of five years or more.
  • You get most of your income from illegal gambling or have been convicted of two or more gambling crimes.

The crimes on this list prevent you from establishing the necessary good moral character during the required period (three or five years).

If anything on your record remotely resembles a crime on the list above, see a lawyer. The lawyer can determine whether you will have a problem applying for citizenship and confirm how many years you should wait after the conviction date before you apply.

How Other Crimes May Impact Your Application for Citizenship

If you have committed a crime that is not on any of the lists described above, the good news is that 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.

As with all crimes, you should see an attorney to evaluate the consequences.

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