Crimes That Will Prevent You From Receiving U.S. Citizenship

A crime or other unlawful act on your record can block eligibility for U.S. naturalization. You might want to wait for some period of time to submit your citizenship application.

By , J.D., University of Washington School of Law

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 a criminal record: in other words, 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. And many others will raise serious questions about whether you have the necessary good moral character to be approved for U.S. citizenship.

You will need to see an immigration attorney for a full check of your record and what it means in immigration law terms. (See How to Find a Good Immigration Lawyer For Your Case.) 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.

Do Only Crimes in the U.S. Count When Applying to Naturalize?

Just to clarify, we aren't referring only to crimes or legal violations committed in the United States. A record from overseas counts as well. One notable exception would be an instance where a refugee or asylee was a victim of inappropriate government prosecution; in other words, was imprisoned for speaking out in dissent against the government, arrested during a peaceful protest, or something along those lines.

Crimes That Permanently Bar Applicants From U.S. Citizenship

If you have ever been convicted of one of the following, you are permanently denied the possibility of receiving U.S. citizenship:

  • murder, or
  • an aggravated felony (if the conviction was after November 29, 1990).

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 immigration lawyers specialize in the overlay of immigration and criminal law, and it's worth seeking one out for your case.

Crimes That Temporarily Bar Applicants From U.S. Citizenship

Some crimes make a person only temporarily ineligible for naturalized U.S. 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:

  • You operated a commercial vice enterprise—for example, were a prostitute, ran a call-girl ring, or sold pornography.
  • You participated in illegal vice activities—for example, hired a prostitute.
  • You have been convicted of or admitted to a crime involving moral turpitude, such as fraud.
  • You spent 180 days or more in jail or prison for any crime.
  • You committed any crime related to illegal drugs other than a single offense involving 30 grams or less of marijuana. (Note also that, even without a criminal conviction, admitting to using marijuana or being part of the marijuana production industry can block your application for citizenship on good moral character grounds, regardless of whether its use is legal in your state; see Chapter 5 of the USCIS Policy Manual.) Also see Risks of Applying for Naturalized U.S. Citizenship: Denial or Even Deportation.
  • You have been convicted of two or more crimes, the combination of which got you a total prison sentence of five years or more.
  • You get most of your income from illegal gambling or have been convicted of two or more gambling crimes.

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. Here's an example of how this could work:

EXAMPLE: Ronaldi becomes a U.S. permanent resident (gets approved for a green card) on November 1, 2020. In theory, he will be eligible for U.S. citizenship five years after that, on November 1, 2025. However, on October 1, 2022, Ronaldi commits a misdemeanor, for which he is arrested, convicted, and spends 180 days in jail. His crime doesn't permanently block him from U.S. citizenship. However, he will need to show five years of good moral character before he can be approved for U.S. citizenship. After consulting with a lawyer, Ronaldi is advised to wait approximately two more years to apply, because he will not be eligible until October 1, 2027.

How Being on Probation Impacts Your Application for U.S. Citizenship

A person who, after being convicted of a crime, is placed on probation or parole, or has a suspended sentence, must successfully complete it in order to be approved for naturalized U.S. citizenship. This comes from the USCIS regulations at 8 C.F.R. § 316.10(c)(1).

There are no exceptions to this rule. A U.S. citizenship application will simply not be approved while you are on probation or parole—no matter how minor the crime. USCIS will either postpone a decision on your application until your probation or parole is completed or ask you to reapply (submit another N-400) later.

Is It Safe to Apply for U.S. Citizenship When Done With Probation?

Even after you have completed your probation, your troubles might not be over. You will need to look into whether the crime you committed could result in the U.S. government taking away your green card, as covered Crimes That Will Make an Immigrant Deportable.

And even if you dodge that bullet, you will need to find out whether the crime bars you from receiving U.S. citizenship, or might cause the USCIS examiner to deny you based on lack of good moral character. In some cases, the problem can be dealt with by waiting a bit longer to apply for naturalized citizenship.

How Other Legal Violations Can Impact Your Application for Citizenship

If you have broken any sort of law, but not committed an actual crime of the sort mentioned on any of the lists 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 experienced immigration attorney to evaluate the consequences.

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