Will unemployment, debt, or bankruptcy prevent my becoming a U.S. citizen?

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Question:

I’m a U.S. permanent resident, who got laid off two years ago. I kept using my credit cards to pay my family’s rent and other expenses, hoping I would find a job to pay it all off. But the payments got to be too high. So now I am in bankruptcy. Can I still become a U.S. citizen, or will the immigration people think I’m a loser?

Answer:

The real question isn’t whether you’re a “loser” (and if you are, so are millions of U.S. citizens also unfortunate enough to have lost their jobs), but whether you have the “good moral character” required to become a naturalized U.S. citizen. Financial problems alone are not a bar to this finding of good moral character.

What is “good moral character?” The law actually says more about what is isn’t than what it is. U.S. immigration law sets out some automatic bars to a finding of good moral character, such as commission of certain crimes (but not debt, unemployment, or bankruptcy). And, beyond the law, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has set forth various automatic bars, such as failure to pay taxes. The Form N-400 Application for Naturalization specifically asks about taxes – but it doesn’t ask about debt, foreclosure, bankruptcy, or related financial issues.

You did not mention whether tax debt was an issue in your case, but you can expect to have to pay any federal, state, or local taxes that you owe, plus penalties, before you are approved for citizenship. In the alternative, USCIS may accept proof that you are cooperating with an IRS payment agreement.

Beyond the automatic bars, a finding of good moral character is largely up to the subjective determination of  the USCIS officer deciding your case. Applicants need not be more upstanding than average citizens in the community where they live, but they must at least meet the same standard.

The officer’s discretion must nevertheless be exercised reasonably. For example, at one time, some USCIS officers routinely denied citizenship to people who were receiving public assistance, until attorneys and immigration advocates protested. They leaned on USCIS to acknowledge that lawful receipt of benefits (with no fraud involved) says nothing negative about a person’s morality.

Of course, if you have engaged in unlawful behavior stemming from your financial trouble, such as committing fraud in order to claim public assistance, or failed to pay child support, this will be factored into the decision of whether you have the good moral character required to become a U.S. citizen. In such a case, you would want to consult an attorney before applying. Illegal behavior can result not only in a denial of citizenship, but in deportation (removal) from the United States.

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