When a U.S. permanent resident gets arrested and convicted for driving under the influence of alcohol (a DUI), there's a worrisome issue beyond the immediate one. Will having this crime on my record hurt their chances of applying for U.S. citizenship? A DUI conviction can be a bar to naturalizing, as we'll discuss in this article, covering:
A DUI (driving under the influence) or DWI (driving while intoxicated) is not among the crimes that automatically bars a person from naturalized U.S. citizenship. (Those are described at Crimes That Will Prevent You From Receiving U.S. Citizenship.) With a simple DUI or DWI on your police record (that is, not one that's mixed in with other crimes or aggravating factors such as it being a "crime of violence"), it is theoretically possible to apply for and receive U.S. citizenship.
However, your chances of success are iffy. You'll be facing an environment of little tolerance for DUI/DWI offenses—or indeed any other alcohol-related offenses, such as public intoxication or disorderly conduct. Even without an absolute bar, the naturalization examiner can find that you lack the "good moral character" required for U.S. citizenship. In fact, being a "habitual drunkard" is a bar to showing good moral character. (See 8 U.S.C. 1101(f).)
In 2019, the U.S. Attorney General decided (via a B.I.A. case called Matter of Castillo-Perez) that two or more DUI convictions during the statutory period creates a presumption that the applicant lacks good moral character. This doesn't mean you will automatically be denied, but you will have to work hard to balance out the picture with a showing of your good moral character.
If no property was damaged and no people were injured in your case, and this was your first offense, these are all positive factors. When considering whether to grant U.S. citizenship to someone who has a crime on record, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will consider factors like these, as well as things like:
All of these are relevant to the issue of your good moral character.
Every U.S. state defines DUI or DWI slightly differently, or has different types of levels of DUI/DWI that a person can be convicted of. USCIS will want you to provide paperwork showing the exact nature of your DUI conviction.
In the best scenario for you, the exact portion of the state statute under which you were convicted will have been written so that it doesn't really tell USCIS much more than that you were driving while intoxicated. In the worst scenario, the law will say that, to be convicted, you must have shown recklessness or malicious or evil intent.
Even if the court didn't order it, someone with a DUI or DWI on record would do well to enter a treatment program, and obtain a certificate or letter showing satisfactory completion. Any other evidence that you have turned your life around is worth pulling together and submitting to USCIS, as well.
With or without a DUI on your record, in order to become a naturalized U.S. citizen, you will have to show that you are a person of "good moral character," particularly in the last five years before you applied. (That time period lowers to three years for people who can apply early based on an exception, most commonly marriage to and residence with a U.S. citizen.) For most applicants, that's a simple matter of proving that they haven't committed any crimes and have been responsible members of the community and paid any required child support.
But someone with a DUI or DWI on record will have to work even harder to prove good moral character, for example by submitting proof of volunteer activities, membership in a church or other house of religious worship, and anything else relevant.
If that seems to difficult, or you don't feel you can overcome the high bar, waiting until five years since the DUI occurred (or three years, if that's your legally required waiting period for citizenship) might be the best approach. Even then, if there were aggravating circumstances, such as someone dying in the car accident caused by the DUI, you could be denied.
An experienced immigration lawyer can help you select and present the most relevant documentary proof. (It's going to take more than just your word in the USCIS interview—though you will need to be prepared to explain the events surrounding the DUI personally, and persuade the USCIS examiner that it was not typical of the way you live your life or that you have since taken steps to change your life.)
Whatever you do, however, do not fail to mention the DUI on your N-400. That lie could ruin your finding of good moral character right there.
For more information, see articles on becoming a U.S. citizen.