What’s a Crime of Moral Turpitude According to U.S. Immigration Law?

Matching state crimes to this federal legal description.

One of the most important definitions for anyone who wants to obtain or keep a U.S. green card (lawful permanent residence) but who has had run-ins with law enforcement is that of “crime of moral turpitude” (CMT). Conviction of a crime that matches this description can block people’s application for a visa or green card, as described in “Crimes That Make U.S. Visa or Green Card Applicants Inadmissible.” It can cause someone who already has a U.S. visa or green card to be removed from the U.S., as described in “Crimes That Will Make an Immigrant Deportable.”

What’s more, it can block a green card holder from showing the “good moral character” necessary for a successful application for U.S. citizenship.

It is important to realize that no one is ever charged with something called a “crime of moral turpitude.” This is a catch-all (or catch-a-lot) description that can apply to any type of crime if and when appropriate. A crime can be a CMT regardless how seriously the criminal justice system views it (i.e., whether it’s a misdemeanor or felony) and regardless of the sentence imposed for it.

Given its importance, you would think that the term “crime of moral turpitude” would be defined within the immigration law, or that a list of specific crimes would be included there. However, the lawmakers left this to the relevant agencies – and ultimately the U.S. courts – to deal with. The results are described in this article.

Defining “Crime of Moral Turpitude”

Written opinions from the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) describe moral turpitude as a “nebulous concept,” and one that “refers generally to conduct that shocks the public conscience as being inherently base, vile, or depraved, contrary to the rules of morality and the duties owed between man and man, either one's fellow man or society in general.” The person committing it should have had either an “evil intent” or been acting recklessly.

This collection of words seems to point to a highly subjective determination— if the immigration official or judge thinks the crime sounds morally wrong, or perhaps mean and nasty, it’s probably a crime of moral turpitude.

There has been a great deal of legal wrangling over the issue of whether, in making this determination, the immigration official may look not only at the language of the law under which the person was convicted (paying attention to each separate element), but at the actual record of and facts surrounding the person’s conviction.

Why is this important? Because if the immigration judges or officials were limited to looking only at the statute, then the immigrant’s lawyer could argue something like, “This statute doesn’t require that the person INTENDED to commit the crime in order to be convicted, therefore we can’t assume that my client meant to do it, so it’s not a crime of moral turpitude.” But if the facts around the particular crime make it perfectly clear that the defendant acted intentionally, then the lawyer would lose this type of argument.

For a while, the former attorney general of the United States allowed immigration officials to look at the full record. But in 2015, the new attorney general said this was wrong, so now all that the courts and officials can consider in assessing whether a crime involves moral turpitude is the language of the criminal statute under which the person was convicted. If that statutory language can possibly describe some kind of crime that doesn’t necessarily involve moral turpitude, the immigrant may be in luck.

Among the many specific offenses that the U.S. government and courts have determined to be CMTs in individual cases are:

  • murder
  • voluntary manslaughter
  • involuntary manslaughter, in some cases
  • rape
  • spousal abuse
  • child abuse
  • incest
  • kidnaping
  • robbery
  • aggravated assault
  • mayhem
  • animal fighting
  • theft
  • fraud, and
  • conspiracy, attempt, or acting as an accessory to a crime if that crime involved moral turpitude.

However, the above list contains only brief summaries of various types of crimes. Most criminal convictions are based on state law, so their actual definitions will be lengthier and more complex. The details within the language of the statute may potentially affect the determination of whether a particular crime is a CMT.

See a Lawyer for a Full Analysis of Whether a Crime Is a CMT

This is not an area for self help. The law on crimes of moral turpitude is constantly developing, and only a lawyer familiar with local criminal laws as well as the immigration code can provide a full analysis of your case.

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