As a Miami immigration attorney, I find myself constantly having to remind my green card-holding clients (i.e. lawful permanent residents) that a crime on their record might bar their approval for citizenship. In order to qualify for naturalization, the law requires that you show that you have resided in the U.S. for a specific period of time, and that for all of that time period you have been and continue to be “a person of good moral character.” This is also known as the “Good Moral Character” (GMC) period.
Why is the Good Moral Character (GMC) Period so Significant?
If you are convicted of breaking the law during the Good Moral Character period, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will consider that conviction in deciding whether you have proven your good moral character.
In light of the Good Moral Character requirements, many Miami immigration attorneys will recommend that if you have pled guilty or been convicted of breaking the law, your best option is often to wait until it has been more than five years (or whichever GMC period applies to you) since your arrest, rather than taking a chance on applying sooner and being denied.
What Constitutes a “Conviction”?
I used to ask this question to my friends when I was an Assistant Public Defender at the Public Defender’s Office. The question was, “Have you ever been convicted of breaking the law?” When the response was “no,” I would follow up with, “Have you ever received a ticket that you paid, or have you ever paid a fine to court?” If the answer is “yes,” you have absolutely been convicted. For purposes of this blog, it helps to separate the convictions into five different classes. These are:
- convictions that mean you are unable to show good moral character
- convictions that make you deportable, even if otherwise you have good moral character
- convictions that may lead USCIS to find you do not have GMC
- convictions that USCIS usually won’t find to be violations of GMC, and
- multiple convictions.
A Permanent Finding of Inability to Show Good Moral Character
The most heinous crimes, such as murder and other aggravated felonies, will automatically and permanently bar a person from ever being considered to have good moral character. If you have a felony conviction on your record, you will have to get the conviction vacated or modified before you can qualify for U.S. citizenship. As a former Miami-Assistant Public Defender, I would highly recommend that you speak with a Miami criminal attorney either concurrently, or before you address the immigration issue.
Other convictions will not be permanent bars to good moral character, but they do make you deportable. Some of these crimes might seem quite minor, but they may have devastating consequences. For example, a conviction for violating a protective order can result in your deportation from the United States.
If you apply for naturalization with a deportable conviction on your record — regardless of how much time has passed — USCIS may place you in removal proceedings. Some deportable convictions include, but are not limited to the following:
- Most domestic violence convictions
- Most protective order violations
- Most convictions related to firearms and illicit drugs
If you have a conviction on your record that makes you deportable, if you apply to naturalize, USCIS may decide, instead of granting your application, to begin removal proceedings against you.
Note – It is important to understand that even if you are deportable, you can still have good moral character if you have no convictions during the GMC period. In these cases, USCIS can choose to exercise what lawyers call “prosecutorial discretion.” That means that USCIS can decide not to begin removal proceedings against you, and instead to approve your application for naturalization. If you have a deportable offense on your record, this is a serious matter. You may want to seriously consider speaking with a criminal attorney, and a Miami immigration attorney at this juncture in order to carefully evaluate your case, and certainly before applying for naturalization.
Convictions That May Lead USCIS to Find You Do Not Have Good Moral Character
There are many crimes that the USCIS will still find are evidence of your bad moral character. They may include, but are not limited to the following:
- A conviction for shoplifting
- Any remotely serious conviction (DUI, battery, criminal damage to property, negligent care of a child, etc.
Convictions That USCIS Usually Will Not Find to Be Violations of Good Moral Character
The N-400 application for naturalization requires you to list any and all arrests, citations, detentions, charges, and convictions, for any crime or offense — and that must include traffic tickets.
Fortunately, according to courts that have interpreted U.S. immigration law, you don’t have to be perfect to be found to be of good moral character, so if your only conviction during the GMC period is for speeding, you should still be able to naturalize. Other minor traffic tickets will also normally not be considered a violation of good moral character.
However, the USCIS has the discretion to decide what is a violation of good moral character. Even a parking ticket can be a violation of good moral character if you have many of them.
Multiple Convictions and Good Moral Character
If you have more than one criminal conviction, even if one or more of them are minor, your case is even more complicated. Multiple convictions, even minor ones, can lead to a finding that you lack Good Moral Character. Why? Too many of those convictions show a pattern of disregard for the law. For instance, if you have several speeding tickets in the same year, the USCIS examiner may conclude that you didn’t learn your lesson the first or even the second time, and that you don’t respect and obey the law. USCIS tends to reserve this type of finding for the most egregious scofflaws.
Immigration Officers Have Discretion Over What Constitutes “Good Moral Character”
It can be difficult to predict when one or more minor convictions within the GMC period will result in your naturalization application being denied. There are no absolute rules — the law gives USCIS the discretion to decide whether or not you have proven that you have good moral character.
“Discretion” means that USCIS and its officers can make up their own minds. Generally, USCIS trains its officers to weigh all factors, good and bad. But discretion means that all sorts of considerations can affect the decision. Remember, even one conviction during the GMC period will allow the examiner to consider your entire record, both during and before the GMC period.
Today, a minor conviction might be a speeding ticket, a child-restraint violation, driving without insurance, fishing without a license, or creating a nuisance on your property. If you have any arrests (even minor) on your record and such arrests are outside the 5 year period discussed above, it is strongly recommended that you seek the advice of an attorney as to how to overcome a potential denial.
For more information on convictions and how they affect your case, please contact Miami family-based immigration attorney Michael G. Murray, Esq. at (305)895-2500 or visit our website at www. mmurraylaw.com .