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

Matching state crimes to this federal legal term, which is not defined in the U.S. immigration statute.

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

Among the unique and important concepts within U.S. immigration law is something called a "crime of moral turpitude" (CMT) or "crime involving moral turpitude" (CIMT).

Having a conviction for a crime of moral turpitude on one's record—or in some cases, even just admitting to the crime—can block one's application for a visa or green card, as described in Crimes That Make U.S. Visa or Green Card Applicants Inadmissible. (See I.N.A. § 212(a)(2)(A)(i)(I).) It can also 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. (See I.N.A. § 237(a)(2)(A)(i).)

What's more, a CIMT on record can block a green card holder from showing the "good moral character" necessary for a successful application for U.S. citizenship.

Yet no one is ever charged with something called a "crime of moral turpitude." It's a catch-all (or catch-a-lot) description, which can apply to almost any type of crime if and when appropriate. Some advocates argue that it's unconstitutionally vague, but this argument has so far gone nowhere.

With that in mind, let's take a closer look at what types of crimes are considered CIMTs.

Does U.S. Immigration Law Define Crimes of Moral Turpitude?

Given its importance, you would think that the term "crime of moral turpitude" would actually 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 agenciesand ultimately the U.S. courtsto deal with.

How Have U.S. Courts Defined Crimes of Moral Turpitude?

The legal definition of a CIMT has been developed mostly through written opinions by the Board of Immigration Appeals (B.I.A.). The B.I.A. has described 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." It has also said that the person committing it should have had either an "evil intent" or been acting recklessly.

Federal courts have additionally called CIMTs "per se morally reprehensible and intrinsically wrong."

These collections of words seem to point to a highly subjective determination. In other words, 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. That's not exactly a bright-line or easy definition, unfortunately.

Does the CIMT Finding Depend on Whether the Crime Is a Misdemeanor or Felony?

A crime can be a CIMT regardless of how seriously the criminal justice system views it, whether it's a misdemeanor or felony; and regardless of the sentence imposed for it.

In What Types of Cases Have Courts Found That Immigrants Committed Crimes of Moral Turpitude?

For guidance on what a CIMT is, one can also look at the many specific offenses that the U.S. government and courts have determined to be CIMTs in individual immigrants' cases. These include:

  • murder
  • voluntary manslaughter
  • involuntary manslaughter, in some cases
  • rape
  • spousal abuse
  • child abuse
  • incest
  • kidnapping
  • robbery
  • aggravated assault
  • mayhem
  • animal fighting
  • theft
  • bigamy
  • 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 might potentially affect the determination of whether or not a particular crime is a CIMT.

For Immigrants in the U.S., How Soon Could a CIMT Lead to Deportation?

If you are in the United States, with or without immigration status, and you are convicted of a crime, there's a good chance U.S. immigration authorities will figure it out. They're known for checking on the immigration status of people in jail or prison. And you might inadvertently bring yourself to their attention, for example by requesting a visa or green card renewal or U.S. citizenship (all of which require you to submit fingerprints).

Immigrants who are in jail or prison for their crime might discover that, on the day they are scheduled for release, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) places a "hold" on them, then picks them up for further detention and eventual deportation (removal) proceedings in U.S. immigration court. (See The Immigration Hold Process After Jail.)

But even an immigrant who is not in jail or prison can be arrested by ICE, then have to attend hearings in immigration court to try and defend against deportation.

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

This is not an area for self help. In fact, the ideal would be to hire two different lawyers when you're first arrested for a crime: both a criminal defense attorney and an immigration attorney. The criminal defense attorney will try to negotiate the most advantageous possible plea agreement for you (to avoid trial). But the immigration attorney's input can be key in making sure that the crime you plead guilty to (if any) will not be viewed as a CIMT.

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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