Any time a U.S. lawful permanent resident (a green card holder) has a run-in with police or law enforcement—even if the case is ultimately dismissed—it is cause for concern. Not only could a police record ruin the immigrant's chances of U.S. citizenship, it could make the person deportable from the United States. Fortunately, a court dismissal makes future immigration trouble far less likely, because it means the judge has determined that no cause exists to go further with the case. But it's not the end of the analysis.
If you are in this situation—in other words, you were arrested for a crime and then had the case dismissed—keep reading to make sure you're safe in applying to naturalize, and that you take appropriate steps in disclosing and dealing with the arrest.
Before analyzing the effect of an arrest on your application for citizenship, it's important to realize that succeeding in a bid for naturalization doesn't merely involve showing that you aren't a serious criminal—it involves showing, affirmatively, that you possess "good moral character."
Any inkling of trouble in your life, particularly if it's not balanced out by positive factors such as a steady work record and home life and history of volunteering or participating in faith-based activities, could undermine this showing. Unfortunately, there is no easy or clearcut definition of what "good moral character" is, so the decision depends in large part on the discretion of your interviewing officer.
The most important time period that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will look at in determining your good moral character is the five years before you submit your application for citizenship. So if you're close to that point with your arrest, it might be safer to wait a little longer. But USCIS can also look further back in time and decide that older arrests are serious enough to show bad character.
For most crimes that make an immigrant either deportable from the U.S. or ineligible for U.S. citizenship, the law requires that the immigrant have actually been convicted (most likely by either having pled guilty or been found guilty in court). But that's not true of all crimes.
For example, USCIS can deny citizenship if it has "reason to believe" that a person has engaged in drug trafficking or prostitution or is a habitual drunkard or a drug addict or abuser. An arrest for a related offense could, by itself, give USCIS grounds for such a belief. The USCIS examiner would simply decide that the person hadn't shown the good moral character required for citizenship.
What's more, a green card holder who, at any time after U.S. admission, has been a drug abuser or addict can be placed into removal proceedings and deported from the United States. No actual court conviction is required under the law. See Grounds of Deportability: When Legal U.S. Residents Can Be Removed for more on this.
Submitting an application for U.S. citizenship is one way that immigrants unwittingly bring the fact that they are deportable to the attention of the immigration authorities.
Even some criminal cases that were dismissed can cause trouble in a citizenship interview, depending on the circumstances of the case. For example, if you initially pled guilty at a criminal court hearing, but the court later vacated the guilty plea and dismissed the case due to completion of some kind of rehabilitation/diversion program, it is not considered a true dismissal for immigration purposes. You should always submit an original or certified document showing proof of compliance with probation requirements.
If your case was not dismissed "on the merits," it can still be deemed a conviction for immigration purposes. This is why it's so important to not only consult with a criminal lawyer but an immigration attorney as well, before accepting any kind of plea deal. The criminal justice system might consider your case dismissed, but the immigration system could still deem you "convicted" of a crime.
In order to apply for U.S. citizenship, you will need to fill out Form N-400, the Application for Naturalization. One of the questions on that form asks whether you have "ever been arrested, cited, or detained by any law enforcement officer (including any and all immigration officials or the U.S. Armed Forces) for any reason."
Another question asks whether you have ever committed, assisted in committing, or attempted to commit a crime or offense for which you were not arrested. Another variation is the question, "have you ever been charged with committing, attempting to commit,or assisting in committing a crime of offense?"
Clearly, USCIS's intent here is to find out about more than your court record. The agency wants a full picture of whether you are a person of good moral character. And if the substance of the questions didn't already make this clear, you will need to disclose the arrest even if your case was dismissed.
Because Form N-400 also asks if you have ever been cited by law enforcement, you should also disclose any traffic tickets or moving violations. While traffic tickets usually don't rise to the level of something that puts you at risk of denial for lack of good moral character (unless you have an exceptional number of citations), failing to disclose them could cause you significant problems.
It goes without saying that you need to tell the truth on Form N-400. Failure to do so will mean that you are vulnerable, at any time in the future, to being stripped of U.S. citizenship if the falsehood is discovered. Besides, every applicant for citizenship must undergo a fingerprint check, which means your arrest record will likely be discovered regardless.
It's not just lying that could get you in trouble. Not remembering an arrest or telling a different story about it, even if you're not trying to mislead USCIS, is almost as bad. It's the USCIS officer's job to be skeptical, and if what you tell the officer doesn't match up with the facts—for whatever reason—you are in danger of having your citizenship denied.
Your best bet in such a situation is to consult an experienced immigration attorney, who will fully analyze the significance of your arrest for immigration purposes and help you craft a strategy for your citizenship application.