I got arrested and convicted for driving under the influence of alcohol, at a checkpoint on New Year’s Eve. It was the first time in my life I’d ever been arrested. Does having this crime on my record ruin my chances of applying for U.S. citizenship? Should I wait a while before applying? Or just not mention it?
A DUI (driving under the influence) or DWI (driving while intoxicated) is not among the crimes that automatically bars a person from naturalized U.S. citizenship. (Those are described at Crimes That Will Prevent You From Receiving U.S. Citizenship.) With a simple DUI or DWI on your police record (that is, not one that's mixed in with other crimes or aggravating factors such as it being a "crime of violence"), it is theoretically possible to apply for and receive U.S. citizenship.
However, your chances of success are currently quite slim. You'll be facing an environment of "zero tolerance" for DUI/DWI offenses—or indeed any other alcohol-related offenses, such as public intoxication or disorderly conduct. Even without an absolute bar, the naturalization examiner can find that you lack the "good moral character" required for U.S. citizenship.
If and when that environment relaxes, here are the factors that you will need to consider (most likely with the help of an experienced immigration attorney) before deciding to submit an N-400 naturalization application:
It sounds like no property was damaged and no people were injured in your case, and this was your first offense, all of which are positive factors. When considering whether to grant U.S. citizenship to someone who has a crime on their record, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will consider factors like these, as well as things like your blood alcohol level, history of drinking or reckless behavior, and whether any aggravating circumstances existed, such as the presence of children in the car. All of these are relevant to the issue of your good moral character.
You didn’t mention what state you were in, but every U.S. state defines DUI or DWI slightly differently, or has different types of levels of DUI/DWI that a person can be convicted of. USCIS will want you to provide paperwork showing the exact nature of your DUI conviction.
In the best scenario for you, the exact portion of the statute under which you were convicted will have been written so that it doesn’t really tell USCIS much more than that you were driving while intoxicated. In the worst scenario, the law will say that, to be convicted, you must have shown recklessness or malicious or evil intent.
Even if the court didn't order it, someone with a DUI or DWI on record would do well to enter a treatment program, and obtain a certificate or letter showing satisfactory completion. Any other evidence that you have turned your life around is worth pulling toegether, as well.
With or without a DUI on your record, in order to become a naturalized U.S. citizen, you will have to show that you are a person of "good moral character," particularly in the last five years before you applied. For most applicants, that’s a simple matter of proving that they haven’t committed any crimes and have been responsible members of the community and paid any required child support.
But someone with a DUI or DWI on record will have to work even harder to prove good moral character, for example by submitting proof of volunteer activities, membership in a church or other house of religious worship, and anything else relevant.
A lawyer can help you select and present the most relevant documentary proof. (It’s going to take more than just your word in the USCIS interview—though you will need to be prepared to explain the events surrounding the DUI personally, and persuade the USCIS examiner that it was not typical of the way you live your life or that you have since taken steps to change your life.)
If that seems to difficult, or you don't feel you can overcome the high bar, waiting until five years since the DUI occurred (or three years, if that's your legally required waiting period for citizenship) may be the best approach.
Whatever you do, however, do not fail to mention the DUI on your N-400. That lie could ruin your finding of good moral character right there.
For more information, see Nolo's articles on becoming a U.S. citizen.