If you are a green card holder applying for U.S. citizenship through the process known as naturalization, one important question will be whether you have ever been arrested for, charged with, or convicted of a crime or other unlawful act. Although not every crime or civil violation creates an outright bar to receiving U.S. citizenship, many do, while others will raise serious questions about whether you have the necessary good moral character.
You will need to see an immigration attorney for a full check of your record and what it means in immigration law terms. To give you an idea of what your attorney will need to analyze, this article offers a brief overview of the most serious crimes that will permanently bar a person from citizenship and the various other crimes or legal violations that will block or delay qualifying for citizenship.
We aren’t referring only to crimes or legal violations committed in the United States. A record from overseas counts as well, unless it’s an instance where a refugee or asylee was a victim of inappropriate government prosecution.
If you have ever been convicted of one of the following, you are permanently denied U.S. citizenship:
These bars are automatic. In other words, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) officer who interviews you and reviews your citizenship application will have no choice but to deny your application for naturalization.
In addition, you will probably be placed into removal (deportation) proceedings once USCIS realizes that one of these crimes is on your record.
What is an aggravated felony? This is an important question, and you can’t tell the answer simply by looking at the name of the crime you were convicted of. USCIS’s definition of aggravated felony includes many crimes that you would expect; such as rape, sexual abuse of a minor, drug trafficking, firearm trafficking, racketeering, running a prostitution business, child pornography, and fraud of $10,000 or more.
However, the immigration definition of aggravated felony also includes crimes that might surprise you, including some that local and state courts sometimes classify as misdemeanors. For example, any crime of violence, or theft or burglary that resulted in a prison term of one year or more will be considered an aggravated felony.
Resisting arrest has been found to be a crime of violence. Even driving while under the influence of alcohol is sometimes considered a crime of violence, particularly if it involves reckless or intentional behavior.
Helping to smuggle an alien into the United States is also considered an aggravated felony—unless it was a first offense to help a spouse, child, or parent. Note that this exception doesn’t cover smuggling other family members, such as grandparents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, fiancés, or friends.
Many stories exist of immigrants who innocently or negligently committed criminal acts that are later classified as aggravated felonies—for example, someone who befriends a drug dealer, buys a fake green card, or has sex with an underage girlfriend. Because this area is so complex, see a lawyer if you believe your criminal record could affect your citizenship application.
Some crimes make a person only temporarily ineligible for citizenship. If, after the date you committed the crime, you wait out the same number of years that you must have to meet your permanent residence requirement—typically five years, or three years for applicants married to and living with a U.S. citizen for all that time—you might be able to receive U.S. citizenship.
We say “might” because USCIS can still consider your past actions in reviewing your application—and choose to deny your application. But at least you will have a chance to prove that the good side of your character outweighs your past bad acts.
Here is a summary list of the crimes that make you temporarily ineligible for citizenship:
The crimes on this list prevent you from establishing the necessary good moral character during the required period (three or five years).
If anything on your record remotely resembles a crime on the list above, see a lawyer. The lawyer can determine whether you will have a problem applying for citizenship and confirm how many years you should wait after the conviction date before you apply.
If you have broken any sort of law, but it's not a crime mentioned on any of the lists described above, USCIS can still use its discretion to claim that you haven't shown good moral character.
In fact, there's a section of the immigration regulations stating that an application for citizenship can be denied if the person committed "unlawful acts" that reflect badly upon moral character, or were convicted or imprisoned for such acts, even if they're not separately listed in the immigration law, and even if they're civil, not criminal violations. (See 8 C.F.R. § 316.10(b)(3)(iii).)
The term "unlawful acts" was left largely undefined for years. In 2019, however, the Trump Administration issued a memo stating that while it must be decided on a case-by-case basis, examples of unlawful acts include bail jumping, bank fraud, conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance, failure to file or pay taxes, falsification of records, false claims to U.S. citizenship, forgery, insurance fraud, obstruction of justice, sexual assault, Social Security fraud, unlawful harassment, unlawfully registering to vote or voting, and violating a U.S. embargo.
(See USCIS Policy Manual at Chapter 5 - Conditional Bars for Acts in Statutory Period.)
In making its judgment on your character, USCIS considers such factors as whether anyone was injured, whether you cooperated with the police and the courts, whether you were drinking or carrying an illegal weapon, and whether there were other "extenuating circumstances" (in other words, whether some forces outside your control were involved).
As with all crimes, you should see an attorney to evaluate the consequences.