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

As hard as you might work after becoming a U.S. permanent resident, it's not hard to get into financial difficulties. 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. Can you still become a U.S. citizen, or does this 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 Citizenship

The question is whether you have the "good moral character" required to become a naturalized U.S. citizen. Financial problems alone are not a bar to this finding of good moral character.

What is "good moral character?" 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. But neither debt, unemployment, nor bankruptcy is on that list.

There's 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."

In addition, USCIS has set forth various automatic bars, such as failure to pay taxes. The Form N-400 Application for Naturalization specifically asks about taxes, but it doesn't ask about debt, foreclosure, bankruptcy, or related financial issues.

When Bankruptcy Could Impact a Good Moral Character Finding

If tax debt was an issue in your case, that's more problematic. Expect to have 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 may accept proof that you are cooperating with an IRS payment agreement.

Beyond the automatic bars to a finding of good moral character, this determination is largely up to the subjective outlook of the USCIS officer deciding your 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.

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, 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 improved your chances of obtaining U.S. citizenship by hiring an experienced immigration attorney to handle it. The attorney can analyze the facts of your case, identify any potential problems, prepare the N-400 and other paperwork, and monitor the progress toward approval. And if you're arrested or accused of any sort of fraud, definitely get an attorney's help.

In such a case, you would want to consult an attorney before applying. Illegal behavior can result not only in a denial of citizenship, but in deportation (removal) from the United States.

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