Will Being Unemployed, in Debt, or Bankrupt Prevent My Becoming a U.S. Citizen?

U.S. immigration law sets out some automatic bars to a finding of good moral character, such as commission of certain crimes; but not debt, unemployment, or bankruptcy.

By , J.D. University of Washington School of Law
Updated 4/25/2024

No matter how hard you might work after becoming a U.S. lawful permanent resident (a green-card holder), getting into financial difficulties can happen. Perhaps, for example, you get laid off from a job, then use credit cards to pay your family's rent and other expenses, hoping to find a job to pay it all off, but end up driven to bankruptcy by the high debt load. And now, as the years pass, you're starting to wonder about whether the time is right to apply for naturalized U.S. citizenship. With a rocky financial history, can you still become a U.S. citizen, or will it destroy your ability to show the required "good moral character"? That's what this article will discuss.

Background on the "Good Moral Character" Requirement for Naturalized U.S. Citizenship

Among the many eligibility criteria a green-card holder must satisfy in order to qualify for U.S. citizenship is what's called good moral character or GMC. But what does this term mean? U.S. immigration law actually says more about what is isn't than what it is.

The law sets out some automatic bars to a finding of good moral character, such as commission of certain crimes. Fortunately, neither debt, unemployment, nor bankruptcy is on that list. In fact, USCIS specifically recognizes the difficulties that low-income naturalization applicants might face, by offering the opportunity for a reduced fee or a fee waiver. (Though you might have heard of the "public charge" rule blocking people from eligibility for green cards, it does not apply to U.S. citizenship.)

There is also guidance to be found in the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Policy Manual (Part F), which describes good moral character as that which "measures up to the standards of average citizens of the community in which the applicant resides."

What the N-400 Citizenship Application Asks in Reference to Financial Matters

USCIS has set forth various automatic bars to a GMC finding, such as failure to pay taxes. In fact, the Form N-400 Application for Naturalization specifically asks whether you "owe any overdue Federal, state, or local taxes in the United States." It also asks whether you have "failed to support your dependents (pay child support) or to pay alimony (court-ordered financial support after divorce or separation." These could certainly be issues stemming from one's difficult financial situation, and would need to be dealt with before applying for citizenship. For example, you might need to pay any federal, state, or local taxes that you owe, plus penalties, before you are approved for U.S. citizenship. In the alternative, USCIS might accept proof that you are cooperating with an IRS payment agreement. (See, for more information, I Owe Back Taxes: Can I Still Apply for U.S. Citizenship?.)

Form N-400 also asks whether you have failed to "pay alimony (court-ordered financial support after divorce or separation." This could also be an issue stemming from monetary troubles, which would need to be dealt with before applying for citizenship. For example, you might need to catch up on child support payments and possibly get a court to alter your regular child-support obligation. (See, for example, How Can I Change a Child Support Order?, and How to Get a Child Support Order Modified Because of a Disability.)

The Form N-400 does not, however, ask about the applicant's debt situation, history or foreclosure or bankruptcy, or related financial issues. Nor should the USCIS officer at your naturalization interview ask about these things, unless it's in reference to possible fraud or criminal matters.

When Unemployment, Debt, or Bankruptcy Could Impact a Good Moral Character Finding

Beyond the automatic bars to a finding of good moral character, determining whether an applicant has met the standards is largely up to the subjective outlook of the USCIS officer deciding the case. Applicants need not be more upstanding than average citizens in the community where they live, but as mentioned above, they must at least meet the same standard. In the worst case, a USCIS officer might decide that the applicant is not actively trying to be self-supporting, or is even living off undeclared income from illegal sources, such as drug dealing.

The officer's discretion must nevertheless be exercised reasonably. For example, at one time, some USCIS officers routinely denied citizenship to people who were receiving public assistance, until attorneys and immigration advocates protested. They leaned on USCIS to acknowledge that lawful receipt of benefits (with no fraud involved) says nothing negative about a person's morality.

Of course, if you have engaged in unlawful behavior stemming from your financial trouble, such as committing fraud in order to claim public assistance, or failed to pay child support despite having enough money with which to pay it, this will definitely be factored into the decision of whether you have sufficiently good moral character to become a U.S. citizen.

Getting Legal Help

You could improve your chances of obtaining U.S. citizenship by hiring an experienced immigration attorney to handle your case. The attorney can analyze the facts of your personal situation, identify any potential eligibility problems and possible ways to overcome them, prepare the N-400 and other paperwork, and monitor the progress toward approval.

And if you are arrested or accused of any sort of fraud, definitely get an attorney's help before applying to naturalize. Illegal behavior can result not only in a denial of U.S. citizenship, but in deportation (removal) from the United States. (See If My Citizenship Is Denied, Will My Green Card Be Cancelled, Too?.)

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