Got a DUI: Can I file Form N-400 for U.S. citizenship?

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Question:

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?

Answer:

A DUI or DWI 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, you may still be able to succesfully apply for U.S. citizenship, so long as you are able to prove that you have good moral character. (The exception might be a DUI or DWI that was classified as a “crime of violence,” which would likely then be considered an “aggravated felony,” which is a bar to U.S. citizenship.)

However, there are a number of factors that you should consider (most likely with the help of an experienced immigration attorney) before submitting your N-400 naturalization application, as follows:

What Were the Facts Surrounding the Crime?

It sounds like no property was damaged and no people were injured, and this was your first offense, all of which are good for your case. 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.

How Does the Law in Your State Define a DUI or DWI?

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. Meanwhile, immigration law is federal, so one always needs to figure out how the state law matches up against the federal one. 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.

Can You Show Good Moral Character in Other Ways?

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 you may have to work even harder to prove your character, for example by submitting proof of your 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.)

If that seems to difficult, waiting until five years since the DUI occurred may be the best approach.

Whatever you do, however, do not omit 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.

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