Permanent residents also do not have the right to vote in U.S. elections, obtain employment in professions restricted to American citizens, or receive the full benefits provided by the U.S. Constitution. Accordingly, there are many advantages to applying to become a naturalized U.S. citizen. But if the U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) finds that the applicant lacks good moral character, it may deny naturalization even if the applicant meets all the other eligibility requirements.
Good moral character requirement
A naturalization applicant must show that he or she has been a person of good moral character for the statutory period (typically five years or three years if married to a U.S. citizen or one year for Armed Forces expedite) prior to filing for naturalization. However, the USCIS may still consider events that occurred outside the statutory period to determine whether an applicant has good moral character.
For special classes where there is no required statutory period, the applicant must prove he or she is presently a person of good moral character. In that case, the USCIS will consider the person’s moral character for a reasonable period immediately preceding the application and during the period between the date of filing of the application and the final decision.
Statutory bars to good moral character and citizenship
Persons convicted of murder at any time or convicted of aggravated felonies on or after Nov. 29, 1990, cannot establish good moral character and are thus permanently barred from naturalization. A person also cannot be found to be a person of good moral character if during the last five years he or she:
- has committed and been convicted of one or more crimes involving moral turpitude
- has committed and been convicted of 2 or more offenses for which the total sentence imposed was 5 years or more
- has committed and been convicted of any controlled substance law, except for a single offense of simple possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana
- has been confined to a penal institution during the statutory period, as a result of a conviction, for an aggregate period of 180 days or more
- has committed and been convicted of two or more gambling offenses
- is or has earned his or her principal income from illegal gambling
- is or has been involved in prostitution or commercialized vice
- is or has been involved in smuggling illegal aliens into the United States
- is or has been a habitual drunkard
- is practicing or has practiced polygamy
- has willfully failed or refused to support dependents
- has given false testimony, under oath, in order to receive a benefit under the Immigration and Nationality Act.
Criminal acts that adversely reflect on the applicant’s moral character
There are some criminal acts that do not necessarily bar the applicant from establishing good moral character, but may cause the USCIS to still determine that the person does not meet this requirement. Under the “catch-all” federal regulation, the USCIS may deny naturalization if, during the statutory period, the applicant committed unlawful acts that adversely reflect on his or her moral character, or was convicted or imprisoned for such acts, although the acts do not fall within the statutory bars. In these cases, the applicant is entitled to show “extenuating circumstances” that led to the offense.
If the applicant is not barred from establishing good moral character by statute, the USCIS must apply the standard of the average citizen in the community of residence to determine whether the applicant has good moral character. The appropriate standard is the average citizen in the community and does not require moral excellence or outstanding character. Also, a single lapse of conduct, even if it occurred within the statutory period, does not necessarily bar the person from establishing good moral character.
Applicants must reveal criminal history to the USCIS
On the Form N-400, Application for Naturalization, questions 15 through 24 in Part 10, Section D, are designed to reveal whether an applicant has good moral character. Question 15, for instance, asks for an admission of the elements of the crime, even if the applicant was never arrested. Question 16 also asks for a disclosure of all arrests and citations, regardless of whether the case was dismissed.
Naturalization applicants must disclose their entire criminal history to the USCIS, even if the offense is not a statutory bar to citizenship or the charges were dismissed.
Effects of probation on a naturalization application
The federal regulations state that an applicant who has been on probation, parole, or suspended sentence is not barred from establishing good moral character. Nonetheless, the USCIS may consider this factor in determining good moral character. Also, the federal regulations do not allow the USCIS to approve the naturalization application until after the person completes the probation, parole or suspended sentence. Thus, it might be best to wait to file the application until after probation, parole or suspended sentence is completed.
Consult an immigration attorney for naturalization questions
While filing for naturalization is generally much simpler than filing for permanent residence, it is not always an easy process, especially when the applicant has a criminal history. If the applicant was subjected to any arrests, citations or convictions, he or she should consult an immigration attorney before seeking naturalization.
Nothing in this article should be taken as legal advice for an individual case or situation. The information is intended to be general and should not be relied upon for any specific situation. For legal advice, consult an attorney experienced in immigration law.