What happens if a green card holder pleads guilty to a misdemeanor?

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Question:

I got arrested recently, and my lawyer thinks he can work out a plea agreement where only a misdemeanor goes on my record and I don’t have to go to jail. I haven’t mentioned to him that I’m here on a green card. II’ve been meaning to apply for citizenship, but haven’t yet gotten around to it.) Is a misdemeanor charge a small enough deal to avoid trouble with my immigration status?

Answer:

If only the analysis were that easy. Whether a crime is a “misdemeanor,” “felony,” or some other classification means very little in the world of immigration law, which tends to assign its own definition to crimes.

As a lawful permanent resident (with a green card), you are right to be concerned about your immigration status if convicted of a crime (and yes, a guilty plea counts as a conviction). If your crime matches one of the “grounds of deportability” found in U.S. immigration law, you could be placed into removal proceedings and ultimately deported from the United States. In fact, if the crime is serious enough that it might be considered an “aggravated felony,” you may face expedited removal proceedings, and become ineligible for various types of benefits, such as one called “cancellation of removal.”

For a rundown of what’s in the law, see “Crimes That Will Make an Immigrant Deportable.”  You’ll notice in looking at that list that the word “misdemeanor” never appears. But other descriptions there could encompass a misdemeanor. For example, a misdemeanor theft conviction might be classified as a “crime of moral turpitude” under the immigration law – which is a ground of deportation if it occurred during your first five years in the U.S. or if you committed two of them.

The grounds of deportability also name certain crimes specifically, which would in most cases make you deportable whether or not they were charged as misdemeanors or felonies: for example, drug crimes, illegal firearms possession or sales, domestic violence, stalking, child abuse or neglect, and so on.

You need to tell your criminal defense lawyer about your immigration status as soon as possible. Then find out how much he or she knows about the immigration laws. It may not be much – in which case you should be sure to consult with an experienced immigration lawyer, as well.

Assuming you get through this okay, applying for U.S. citizenship as soon as you are eligible would be a good idea. However, if you’ve got a crime on your record, that may stall or destroy your eligibility, as described in “Crimes That Will Prevent You From Receiving U.S. Citizenship.” Again, see an immigration attorney for a full analysis.

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