“Good Moral Character” for Naturalization: Part 1/2

In a recently-updated article, available on MurthyDotCom, some of the requirements for naturalization to become a U.S. citizen are discussed. [See Basic Eligibility Requirements for Naturalization (updated 19.Nov.2010).] Here we focus in greater detail on the legal requirement of “good moral character” – an important, but frequently misunderstood, requirement for naturalization. It is also one that can lead to unexpected delays, denials, or worse for unprepared applicants for U.S. citizenship.

Background: Timeframe Required for Good Moral Character

U.S. immigration law requires that an applicant for naturalization be a person of “good moral character.” The period reviewed for most applicants is the five years prior to filing the N-400. Some applicants who are married to U.S. citizens are able to take advantage of the shorter timeframe of three years, instead of the standard five years.

It is important to remember that, in addition to the three or five year period prior to filing for naturalization, the requirement to maintain good moral character continues until the oath of citizenship is completed and one actually becomes a U.S. citizen. Therefore, acts that occur after filing the naturalization application and prior to the oath ceremony can affect eligibility and must be disclosed. There are also some acts occurring prior to the three- or five-year period that are serious enough to prevent naturalization. These are described below. This is just one of the nuances that needs to be considered when filing for U.S. citizenship.

Lack of Good Moral Character

Some acts are considered so serious that they simply prevent a finding of good moral character as required for naturalization. Persons who have been convicted of murder at any time (even before the three- or five-year period) cannot establish that they have good moral character. The same is true of individuals who have been convicted of crimes classified in immigration laws as aggravated felonies (on or after November 29, 1990).

Other Acts Showing Lack of Good Moral Character

The remaining mandatory bars to naturalization apply only to acts committed during the applicable three- or five-year period (and continuing until swearing in). Some of the more common items on this list are summarized below.

– Commission of a crime categorized in immigration law as a crime involving moral turpitude (CIMT): There is a substantial body of immigration law regarding whether any particular crime is a CIMT. This ground of ineligibility applies, not only when there has been a conviction, but also, in some circumstances, when an individual admits to committing such a crime. Crimes of theft, even those involving shoplifting inexpensive items, are generally classified as CIMTs. There is an exception that MAY apply to this mandatory bar for commission of a single crime that fits within what is known as the “petty offense exception.” This exception is outside the scope of this article, but past articles on this topic are available on MurthyDotCom. Anyone who has a criminal history, however minor it may seem, should consult with a qualified immigration attorney before applying for naturalization.

– Conviction for multiple crimes (whether involving moral turpitude or not) for which the applicant was sentenced to incarceration of five years or more in the aggregate: This includes all crimes, with the exception of foreign convictions for “purely political” offenses.

– Violation of the controlled substance laws of any country: Conviction of (or admission to) violation of any controlled substance laws results in a denial of naturalization. The one exception is for a single conviction for simple possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana.

– Giving false testimony for the purpose of obtaining an immigration benefit: This ground can be a serious problem if there has been an irregularity in an applicant’s prior immigration filings. Frequently, these kinds of problems are uncovered during the naturalization interview.

– A person who is a “habitual drunkard” during the period for which s/he is required to establish “good moral character” is ineligible for naturalization. This can come to the attention of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) through alcohol-related traffic arrests. Given the increased enforcement of state laws against driving under the influence (DUI) and driving while intoxicated or impaired (DWI), this is a fairly common issue.

USCIS Can Look Beyond the Three- or Five-Year Period

As mentioned, the mandatory good moral character denials (with the exception of murder and aggravated felony convictions) are all specifically related to conduct that occurs within the required good-moral-character period. Thus, an individual with a history that includes a mandatory basis for naturalization denial under good moral character may be able to simply wait a number of years and overcome the problem.

In addition to the mandatory bars, however, the USCIS has discretion in determining good moral character. As a discretionary matter, the USCIS is permitted to consider conduct outside of the required good-moral-character period, if it relates to conduct that occurred within this period and it shows a lack of “rehabilitation or reform.” That is, if one continues to exhibit incidents indicating s/he is still engaged in the same type of conduct, the USCIS could elect to examine the applicant’s entire history.

It is important to note that a denial on this basis requires some problematic conduct during the three- or five-year period. Otherwise, an individual whose conduct within the good-moral-character period has been upstanding should not be denied naturalization solely based on prior conduct (other than murder and/or aggravated felony).

Be Mindful – Denial of Citizenship Can Result in Removal

One should take note that some of these naturalization denials, based on moral character grounds, are are also grounds for removal (deportation). The fact that an older crime does not preclude naturalization on the grounds of good moral character does not mean that removal is no longer a possibility. Anyone with concerns about his/her eligibility for naturalization due to a criminal history also should have the case reviewed with respect to whether s/he could be subject to removal / deportation proceedings. We at the Murthy Law Firm are available to assist with the review one’s history to assess both naturalization eligibility and any potential removability concerns.

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Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.