United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) generally allows individuals with criminal convictions to apply for citizenship.
However, the decision of whether or not you’ll actually receive citizenship will depend on the nature of your crime.
After they process your application, a USCIS officer will weigh the severity of your crimes against your “good moral character.”
While some smaller offenses are offset by practicing good citizenship, more serious offenses can bar you from citizenship entirely.
Good Moral Character Standard
One of the first steps in filing for citizenship is filling out Form N-400. This form will explicitly ask if you have ever been arrested, cited, or detained by a law enforcement officer.
USCIS will normally ask this question to see if you possess “good moral character.”
In most cases, they’ll look especially hard into what you’ve done for the last 5 years. However, they always take your full criminal history into account.
As a general rule, you should avoid applying for citizenship if you’ve been convicted of any crime within the last 5 years.
When establishing an applicant’s good moral character, a USCIS officer will evaluate three things:
- The presence of a criminal record
- Application information
- Interview testimony
The presence of a criminal record doesn’t necessarily bar you from citizenship, it just makes the process harder.
However, make sure you disclose any and all previous convictions on your N-400 form, even if your original criminal case was dismissed.
Failing to fully disclose your criminal history can result in an automatic dismissal of your application.
Telling the truth on your N-400 form is crucial. If you lie or mislead the USCIS on your form, they might just reject your application outright.
Detailing your entire criminal history on the form can help you avoid this fate. Even if your criminal record was expunged, you should still disclose it in your application.
USCIS will check numerous criminal databases when reviewing your application.
If they find a discrepancy, they can reject your application. This requirement also applies to crimes committed in another country.
Generally speaking, a prosecution, arrest, detainment, or citation doesn’t necessarily bar you from obtaining citizenship.
USCIS normally decides these things on a case-by-case basis.
Purely Political Offense Exception
USCIS allows for one specific exception for people convicted in other countries.
In cases where a foreign government treated you unfairly (such as if they detained you due to your religion or political beliefs), you may be eligible for the Purely Political Offense Exception.
However, while this rule is on the books, it is very seldom used.
This is because of the extremely specific requirements for applying under this exception.
The Purely Political Offense Exception covers legal problems that arise in other countries for “purely political” reasons.
This means that it covers cases of oppression based on racial, political, or religious grounds.
Basically, if a foreign government infringed on human rights otherwise protected by U.S. law, you may apply under this exception.
If you think that your case may fall under this exception, you should mention it to your attorney.
Crimes With a Permanent Bar
It’s important to note that certain crimes will immediately bar you from gaining citizenship.
Even if you get an interview, USCIS cannot and will not approve your application if you’ve committed any of these crimes.
Because good moral character is the main requirement in applying for U.S. citizenship, crimes that demonstrate a blatant lack of moral character can completely bar you from becoming a citizen.
For example, most aggravated felonies will result in a permanent bar on your citizenship.
USCIS also sets a date for how far back they’ll look when considering a permanent bar. Outside of murder, any aggravated felony conviction on or after November 29, 1990 can result in a permanent bar.
Murder convictions always result in a permanent bar, regardless of how long ago they took place.
Common Reasons for a Permanent Bar
The types of aggravated felonies that fall under this category may surprise you.
Conviction of any of the following will generally bar you from citizenship.
Note however that this isn’t a complete list of all bar-worthy crimes, just the most common ones:
- Sexual abuse of a minor
- Illegal trafficking of a controlled substance
- Money laundering
- Firearm offenses
- Ransom (either request for or receiving it)
- Child pornography
- Illegal entry into the U.S. (some exceptions for first offenders)
- Bribery, counterfeiting, forgery
- Vehicle trafficking
- Obstruction of justice, perjury, witness bribery
- Managing, transporting, or trafficking prostitutes
- Failure to appear in court
- Attempt or conspiracy to commit another aggravated felony
USCIS can also give you a permanent bar for certain crimes that lead to imprisonment for longer than 1 year. Some examples of these types of crimes include:
- Racketeering or gambling
- Document fraud (including passport fraud)
- Any other violent crime
In some cases, these crimes may count as misdemeanors instead of felonies.
However, USCIS can still bar you from citizenship even if you were charged with a misdemeanor instead of an aggravated felony.
Again, the final decision falls to the USCIS officer presiding over your case.
Crimes with a Temporary Bar
There are a few other crimes which commonly result in a temporary bar.
While these bars still inhibit your citizenship process, they only last a few years. USCIS refers to these restrictions as “conditional bars.”
USCIS can temporarily bar you for any crime committed during your naturalization process. This includes right up to your Oath of Allegiance ceremony.
Common Reasons for a Temporary Bar
It’s important to remember that some of these crimes can still result in a permanent ban. These crimes are simply less likely to result in a permanent bar on your citizenship process:
- Crimes involving “moral turpitude”
- Conviction of two or more offenses which result in a combined sentence of five or more years
- Incarceration, for any reason, for more than 180 days
- Lesser controlled substance violations*
- Giving false testimony for immigrant benefits
- Prostitution (in any capacity)
- Failure or refusal to support your dependents
*Note, however, that there is a general exception for simple possession of less than 30g of marijuana (see subsection “(h) Waiver of subsection (a)(2)(A)(i)(I), (II), (B), (D), and (E)” of the U.S. Code).
While this list doesn’t cover every crime that can result in a bar, the basic idea of the temporary bar applies to any offense which involves:
“Willful conduct that is morally reprehensible and intrinsically wrong, the essence of which is a reckless, evil or malicious intent [to commit a crime]…with some form of guilty knowledge.”USCIS Policy Manual – Chapter 5 – Conditional Bars for Acts in Statutory Period
This quote references most crimes involving moral turpitude. However, it also displays the general intent of the USCIS.
Basically, in order to gain citizenship in the United States, you need to act like a good citizen.
As far as USCIS is concerned, good citizens never commit crimes that are “intrinsically wrong.”
Waiting Period for Temporary Offenses
Once your waiting period is over, you can file for citizenship as normal.
Typically, you should wait a little bit longer than the designated period. This can help you further establish your good moral character in your application.
Although you may be eligible for citizenship on paper, the USCIS officer reviewing your case still has the final say. The officer still can, and may, deny you for any reason he sees fit.
For this reason, you should generally wait at least 5 years after a criminal conviction before you try to apply for citizenship.
Example Crime: DUI
Remember that the lists above are not comprehensive.
As one common example of a crime that doesn’t appear on those lists, we can take a look at driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol (DUI).
Editor’s Note: For more information on Virginia’s DUI laws, see: “Driving Under the Influence (DUI) in Virginia: The Ultimate Guide.”
A DUI conviction doesn’t necessarily bar you from applying for U.S. citizenship. However, a DUI conviction will make your application process more difficult.
If you’ve been charged with a DUI within the last five years and still want to apply for citizenship, you should speak with an immigration attorney.
Depending on your circumstances, you may be better off waiting until 5 years have passed before applying for citizenship.
Regardless, you should realize that the specifics of your case can highly affect the outcome of your citizenship application.
The most important thing to remember is that USCIS will weigh your criminal conviction against your good moral character.
If your DUI conviction is a first-time offense, sometimes having good moral character can outweigh the crime.
However, if you injured someone, or damaged a significant amount of property, you might be barred from citizenship entirely.
In addition, proactive measures such as taking driving classes, going to rehabilitation meetings, and performing community service can help strengthen your case for having good moral character.
If you have been convicted of a crime, it is crucial that you consult with an immigration attorney before you apply for U.S. citizenship.
Figuring out how, when, and even if you should apply for naturalization can be tricky. Getting the opinion of an experienced attorney may improve your chances for success.