Obtaining U.S. citizenship is a privilege and an honor. However, applicants must prove they are of good moral character and willing to uphold the laws and values of the United States. Certain criminal acts may bar an individual from naturalizing and becoming a U.S. citizen.
What is naturalization?
Naturalization is the process by which a lawful permanent resident (green card holder) voluntarily becomes a U.S. citizen after meeting certain requirements. Naturalization applicants must demonstrate good moral character during the statutorily prescribed period (typically 5 years or 3 years if married to a U.S. citizen or one year for certain military members). USCIS will consider an applicant’s conduct during the entire period they have been a lawful permanent resident. Even a single crime committed during this time can have negative consequences.
How are crimes evaluated during naturalization?
When evaluating an applicant’s good moral character, USCIS will consider:
- Whether the applicant has been convicted of or admits to committing a crime
- The nature and circumstances of each crime
- Evidence of rehabilitation
- How much time has passed since the crime was committed
Certain crimes will automatically disqualify an applicant from establishing good moral character, while other crimes will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. The consequences depend on the type and severity of the crime.
Crimes that result in permanent ineligibility
The following crimes permanently bar an individual from establishing good moral character for naturalization purposes:
- Aggravated felony – Committed on or after November 29, 1990
- Murder – At any time
- An offense classified as a crime involving moral turpitude (CIMT) with a possible sentence of one year or more, committed within the last 10 years
- Two or more offenses classified as CIMTs, committed at any time, with sentences imposed on separate dates
- A controlled substance violation, except for a single offense of simple possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana
If an individual commits one of these offenses, they will never be able to naturalize and become a U.S. citizen under current law. These permanent bars apply even if the crime was expunged or the record sealed.
Crimes that require rehabilitation
Other criminal acts do not result in permanent ineligibility but will require evidence of rehabilitation before naturalization can be granted. These include:
- A CIMT committed outside the last 10 years
- A single CIMT committed within the past 10 years with a possible sentence under one year
- Two or more CIMTs committed outside the 10 year period
- Unlawful possession or sale of a controlled substance, other than a single offense for simple possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana
For these crimes, USCIS will weigh evidence of rehabilitation along with other factors to determine whether the applicant meets the good moral character requirement. Rehabilitation may be established through evidence of good conduct, community service, steady employment, participation in counseling or rehabilitation programs, payment of taxes, family and community ties, etc.
Arrests, convictions, and juvenile crimes
Naturalization applicants must disclose all arrests and convictions, even if the record was sealed or otherwise cleared. An arrest or filing of charges could still be relevant to the naturalization decision. Juvenile crimes should also be disclosed if the proceeding resulted in a conviction or adjudication. An adjudication occurs when a juvenile is found to have committed an offense without technically being convicted as an adult. However, juvenile crimes generally do not trigger permanent ineligibility for naturalization.
Failure to disclose crimes
Failing to disclose arrests, charges, convictions, or other crimes can also have severe consequences. Even if the crime itself is not a permanent bar, knowingly concealing it could suggest the applicant lacks good moral character required for citizenship. deny citizenship.
Deportability and inadmissibility
In addition to good moral character requirements, naturalization applicants must also demonstrate they have continuously resided in the United States in lawful permanent resident status. Committing a crime that leads to deportation (removal) from the U.S. interrupts continuous residence. Crimes that render an individual deportable or inadmissible can therefore also impede naturalization.
Examples of deportable crimes
Crimes that can lead to deportation include:
- Aggravated felony
- Crime involving moral turpitude
- Firearm offense
- Drug crime
- Two or more crimes with aggregate sentence of 5 years or more
- High speed flight from immigration checkpoint
- Failure to register as a sex offender
- Domestic violence, stalking, child abuse
If a lawful permanent resident commits one of these offenses and is placed in deportation proceedings, their continuous residence is disrupted. Even if they are not ultimately deported, the deportability itself can bar naturalization.
Examples of inadmissible crimes
Grounds of inadmissibility that may also impede naturalization include:
- Controlled substance offense
- Multiple criminal convictions with aggregate sentence of 5 years or more
- Commercialized vice
- Human trafficking
- Money laundering
- Security or terrorism grounds
These acts may render an individual inadmissible to the United States upon re-entry after international travel. Like deportability, inadmissibility alone can disrupt continuous residence even if re-entry is ultimately allowed. This means even lawful permanent residents who do not technically live in the U.S. full-time must comply with admissibility requirements.
Committing certain crimes can permanently bar an individual from naturalizing to become a U.S. citizen. Other criminal acts require evidence of rehabilitation before naturalization can be granted. All arrests and convictions must be disclosed on the naturalization application, as any deception suggests a lack of good moral character. Additionally, crimes that result in deportability or inadmissibility can impede naturalization by disrupting continuous lawful residence in the United States. Consulting with an experienced immigration attorney is highly recommended to understand the naturalization consequences before committing any crime.