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

Don't spend your time proving your character or achievements unless it can actually help your immigration application.

By , J.D.

Many people wonder what they can do to show that they are a good person when submitting an application for an immigration benefit or when defending against deportation. People frequently begin collecting evidence of their good character and other accomplishments to show U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) or the Immigration Court, even without knowing whether this evidence is needed.

Demonstrating good moral character is an extremely important part of many immigration cases, but it is not required in all of them. In fact, providing proof of your accomplishments to the court could hurt your immigration case in some instances. This article can help you determine when you will need to provide evidence of good moral character.

What Is Good Moral Character?

Good moral character means that a person does not have serious criminal issues in his or her past, and that the person generally fulfills his or her obligations under the law.

According to the USCIS Policy Manual (Part F), good moral character for naturalization purposes is defined as "character which measures up to the standards of average citizens of the community in which the applicant resides."

There are some crimes that USCIS considers to be crimes of moral turpitude. A conviction for one of these crimes will likely lead to a finding that you do not have good moral character. 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 your record may also thwart a finding of good moral character. You must typically show that you have good moral character for a specific period of time, depending on what type of immigration application or case you are pursuing. It's usually five years if applying for naturalization, for example.

It can be difficult to determine whether your personal history makes you a person who does not have good moral character. Even if you have some instances of misconduct in your past, if these circumstances 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.

In some cases, things that you feel bad about not meeting your own personal standards might not 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.

Why Maintaining Good Moral Character Is Important for Permanent Residents

If you are a lawful permanent resident (LPR) and 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 (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.

Furthermore, 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. 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.

Moral Character Can Be Key for Certain USCIS Immigration Applications

If you are in the U.S. without permission, you might still qualify for certain types of immigration status depending on your circumstances. For example, if you are the victim of a crime, you might qualify for a U visa, or you may be able to self-petition for a green card under the provisions of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). You might also qualify for some application that requires a waiver of inadmissibility (or forgiveness) for your unlawful time in the United States. In each of these situations, you will need to demonstrate that you are a person of good moral character.

In other instances, a showing of any accomplishments can be very helpful to your case. For example, when applying for a green card as a U nonimmigrant, you will want to show USCIS that granting your application for permanent residence is justified on public interest grounds. Here, it will be important to provide documentation of your accomplishments as proof of why your green card application should be approved.

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 defending onesself, a person might have several opportunities to apply for some form of relief from removal, or in other words, for permission to remain in the country even if the person could otherwise be deported.

In many such cases, evidence of good moral character becomes very important. Forms of relief such as cancellation of removal or suspension of removal require the Immigration Judge (IJ) to make a finding of good moral character.

Voluntary departure (a form of self-deportation when the person voluntarily agrees to leave the U.S. before a certain date) may also require a showing of good moral character. If you wish to request voluntary departure after the IJ denies you 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 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. Similarly, if you are trying to show that your application for asylum should still be considered even though you did not file within a year after arriving in the U.S., providing proof that you were out there doing other things rather than filing your asylum application could be damaging.

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. So you should not use your valuable time and resources trying to collect extensive evidence of good moral character in preparing an asylum case. Instead, allocate time and resources to preparing other evidence that will specifically help your case. In both situations, the focus will be on the circumstances that the applicant faces in his or her home country rather than the person's good moral character.

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