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Good character 1: bars, arrests, crimes

You must demonstrate good moral character for the full three- or five-year residence period; Immigration may also consider earlier conduct, particularly if it is related to problems in the three- or five-year period. Although the legal definition of good moral character for naturalization purposes is character consistent with “the standards of average citizens” in your community, a surprising number of applicants are rejected for failure to meet the good moral character requirement for citizenship.

Why? Some bars to establishing good moral character are complex, and others fall into “gray areas,” subject to varying interpretation. Many Immigration examiners apply a tougher standard than the basic definition would suggest or treat errors or misunderstandings that arise during the interview as evidence of bad moral character. Be aware that your examiner – however polite he or she may be – may take a very critical view of your past errors and your answers during the interview.

Automatic bars

Several problems automatically bar you from proving good moral character even if they occurred long before the three- or five-year good moral character period. Among the most common are:

  • conviction of an aggravated felony after November 1991 (The list of aggravated felonies is long, and – in spite of the name – includes many misdemeanors.)
  • falsely claiming to have been a US citizen after 1996

Others constitute an automatic bar if they occured in the three- or five-year good moral character period. Even after this time has passed and they no longer bar naturalization absolutely, they will likely have a negative impact on your application:

  • committing a crime involving moral turpitude (a broad category that includes minor theft offenses like shoplifting)
  • having been convicted of two crimes for which a suspended or actual sentence of five years or more was imposed
  • committing any drug offense (except for a single incident of possession of less than 30g of marijuana) or giving Immigration reason to believe you were involved in drug selling
  • having spent a total of 180 days in jail
  • involvement in prostitution
  • involvement in smuggling someone into the US
  • giving false testimony under oath

Many of these grounds can also subject you to being placed in removal (deportation) proceedings, even for old offenses. Many people are put into removal proceedings because they unwisely made citizenship applications that brought their past offenses to Immigration’s attention.

A note about arrests and crimes

Many people think of arrests as dramatic events where bad guys are rounded up, handcuffed, and thrown into a crowded cell at the police station. However, most arrests involve a police offer handing you a citiation that you have to answer in court (or in some cities and states by pleading no contest or guilty through the mail). Think very hard (or better still consult an immigration lawyer) before saying that you have never been arrested.

In addition, many people who are arrested participate in court programs that result in the charges being dropped and a judge telling them that they can answer no when asked if they have been arrested. Immigration does not agree that these arrests “no longer exist.” Immigration requires applicants to list the arrest and how the case was decided on Form N-400. Whether Immigration recognizes the court dismissal of the charges as a dismissal or as a conviction varies depending on state law. It may not seem fair, but some state court dismissals are considered convictions for immigration purposes. This is another reason that it makes sense to get an attorney’s advice before applying for citizenship.

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