When Proof of Good Moral Character Helps an Immigration Application—Or Doesn't

Don't spend your time proving your fine character or worldly achievements unless it can actually help your U.S. immigration application. (And make sure it won't actually hurt it.)

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

Many foreign nationals wonder what they can do to show that they're good people when submitting an application for a U.S. immigration benefit or when defending against deportation. They collect evidence of their good character and accomplishments to show U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) or the Immigration Court, even without knowing whether it's needed.

Demonstrating good moral character is an extremely important part of many immigration cases, but is not always a legal requirement. In fact, providing proof of one's accomplishments to the immigration court can hurt some types of cases. This article can help you determine when you will need to provide evidence of good moral character as part of an immigration application.

When Moral Character Is Key for a U.S. Immigration Application

For starters, if you are in the U.S. without permission, you might nevertheless qualify for certain types of immigration status. For example, if you are the victim of a crime, you might qualify for a U visa or to self-petition for a green card under the provisions of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). If you end up in immigration court proceedings and seek to qualify for cancellation of removal, showing ten years of good moral character in the U.S. will be crucial.

Whether in the U.S. lawfully or not, you might qualify for some application, such as a family-based green card, which requires a waiver of inadmissibility (or forgiveness) for your unlawful time here. In such a situation, you would need to demonstrate that you are a person of good moral character; and in the U visa case, you would need to show USCIS that granting your application for permanent residence is justified on public interest grounds.

Finally, one's eligibility for naturalized U.S. citizenship rests partly on proving good moral character.

We'll provide details on many of these situations below.

What Is Good Moral Character in Immigration Law Terms?

Good moral character means that a person does not have serious criminal issues in their past and generally fulfills their obligations to society under the law.

According to the USCIS Policy Manual (Volume 12 Part F Chapter 1), the definition of good moral character for naturalization purposes is that which "measures up to the standards of average citizens of the community in which the applicant resides." This is the approach USCIS takes in most type of immigration cases, though of course, the more one can do to show positive acts, such as being a productive member of society, helping one's family, volunteering in one's community, and so on, the better.

What Indicates a Lack of Good Moral Character?

At the other end of the spectrum, there are acts that USCIS and the immigration courts consider to be crimes of "moral turpitude" or CIMT. A conviction for or admission to having committed one of these crimes can lead to a finding that the person does not have good moral character. It can even lead to the removal (deportation) of someone with a green card. For a full analysis, see What Is a Crime of Moral Turpitude According to U.S. Immigration Law?

Gambling offenses, prostitution, perjury, and drug offenses on one's record can also thwart a finding of good moral character.

It can be difficult to determine whether your personal history indicates you do not have good moral character. Even if you have instances of misconduct in your past, if they occurred a long time ago and you can show that you have reformed, you might still be eligible for an immigration benefit such as cancellation of removal or withholding of removal.

Things that you feel bad about, which do not meet your personal standards, might not necessarily disqualify you receiving an immigration benefit. For example, you might have violated a traffic law or been convicted of a minor misdemeanor. If you have doubts or concerns about whether you can show good moral character or whether you should disclose certain incidents in your past, consult an immigration attorney.

Showing the Length of Time You've Had Good Moral Character Can Be Important

Depending on what type of immigration application or case you are pursuing, you must typically show that you have had good moral character for a specific period of time. It's usually five years if applying for naturalization, for example, and ten years for cancellation of removal (non-LPR).

Why Maintaining Good Moral Character Can Help U.S. Lawful Permanent Residents Avoid Deportation

If you are a U.S. lawful permanent resident (LPR), committing a crime can make you deportable. See Crimes That Will Make an Immigrant Deportable for details.

Even if you aren't caught and deported, if you one day intend to apply for U.S. naturalization (citizenship), you must show good moral character during the time that you have been an LPR, and particularly during the five years before you apply to naturalize (or three years, if you're allowed to apply after only that amount of time, most likely based on marriage to and residence with a U.S. citizen). The naturalization interviewer will specifically evaluate your moral character, and you can be disqualified for various crimes, or based on related criteria.

Another issue is that if you travel abroad as an LPR, you could be denied reentry to the U.S. if an immigration officer finds information regarding a criminal history, because you have become "inadmissible."

If you have committed a crime while you have LPR status, you should absolutely consult an immigration attorney prior to applying for citizenship or traveling abroad.

When Moral Character Is Important in Immigration Court Proceedings

Good moral character is often an issue when a person is in deportation or "removal" proceedings. By way of self defense, one might be able to apply for some form of relief from removal, or in other words, for permission to remain in the country. In many such cases, evidence of good moral character becomes crucial.

Forms of relief such as cancellation of removal for undocumented persons or non-LPRs require the Immigration Judge (IJ) to make a finding of good moral character. And even though the law on cancellation of removal for permanent residents doesn't specifically require a good moral character showing, the judge must be convinced that the applicant "deserves" this discretionary form of relief (besides which, crimes of moral turpitude are a bar to non-LPR cancellation).

Voluntary departure (a form of self-deportation, in which the foreign national voluntarily agrees to leave the U.S. before a certain date) can also require a showing of good moral character. If you wish to request voluntary departure after the IJ denies immigration relief, the IJ can grant voluntary departure if you demonstrate good moral character. However, if you wish to request voluntary departure before the final case is heard and the IJ issues a final order, the IJ can grant voluntary departure without a finding of good moral character.

When a Showing of Personal Accomplishments or Moral Character Is Not Needed

There are important situations in which applicants are not required to show good moral character in order to obtain an immigration benefit. In fact, in some of these situations, listing all of your accomplishments could actually undermine an application.

If, for example, you are attempting to show substantial mental abuse in order to obtain a U visa, evidence showing great achievements during the time you were harmed by mental abuse can hurt your case. After all, if you were carrying on as normal during a time you were supposedly under huge stress, it can look contradictory to U.S. immigration authorities.

Similarly, if you are trying to show that your application for asylum should still be considered even though you did not file within the one-year deadline after arriving in the U.S., providing proof that you were out in the world doing productive things rather than filing your asylum application could be damaging. The point of requesting the exception would be to show that you were prevented from taking action on an asylum application for reasons beyond your control.

A finding of good moral character is not a requirement to win an asylum or withholding of removal case. This is an important distinction, because an asylum or withholding of removal case can be one of the most complicated cases to prepare and present. There's no point in using your valuable time and resources trying to collect extensive evidence of good moral character in preparing an asylum case. Instead, focus on preparing evidence that will specifically help your case. In both situations, the focus will be on the circumstances that the applicant faces in their home country rather than good moral character. Nevertheless, because asylum is a discretionary decision, and must be denied to applicants who have committed certain types of bad acts such as persecution of others, be aware of these and take steps to overcome their effect on your case.

Getting Legal Help

In any type of case that involves proving good moral character, and some that don't, creating a convincing argument before U.S. immigration authorities can require much more than just filling out forms. An experienced immigration attorney can help evaluate your situation, prepare arguments in the form of a cover letter or legal brief, accompanied by supporting evidence, and prepare you for any in-person court appearances or interviews before U.S. government officials.

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