Can Immigrants With A Criminal Record Still Become US Citizens?
It’s wonderful to see that despite all the absurdities that can sometimes go on in this country, America is still a place that’s aiming to do amazing things. It’s almost as if some citizens like to forget that the US was founded by immigrants. Anyway, with World Refugee Day now come and gone, it seems apt to dedicate at least one post on the United States’ naturalization process.
I was helping out at a free immigration legal clinic earlier this week and one of the most frequently asked questions I was hearing from the clients in attendance was whether or not an immigrant with a criminal record could still be eligible for US citizenship. Suffice to say, the answer to this question is complicated and often very fact-specific to each person. Answering it in any short form is next to impossible, and like every attorney present at that free clinic, any answer given was prefaced with a big “but.”
Why the big “but?” Because in today’s overly cautious and, some would say, xenophobic America, fear of terrorism has never been so great. Along those lines, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (formerly known as the US Immigration and Naturalization Service) has become much more diligent and strict on investigating immigration issues, especially those regarding naturalization. Other that being born into it, the path to become a US citizen was never an easy one, though now some immigration experts suggest it’s even harder in light of today’s immigration law reforms. Therefore, the best thing to do if you have a truly serious immigration issue is to sit down with a qualified immigration attorney and discuss your case.
The first thing you need to address if you’re an immigrant with a criminal record is whether or not you’re an illegal or legal immigrant. Generally, if a person has come into the US illegally, they are typically prohibited from applying for US citizenship on this ground alone and may also be subject to deportation. The reason is because illegal immigrants have not only violated US law by coming into the country without authorization, but they’ve also cut in line in front of all those immigrants who have applied for residency through the normal legal immigration process. This process is important to the US because it gives the government a chance to vet all potential immigrants prior to being allowed entry. Though its possible for ICE to choose not to deport an illegal immigrant, such decisions happen very rarely and usually only in extraordinary cases.
Next, you would have to determine the category of crime you were convicted of. Crimes of moral turpitude, meaning crimes that make you seem dishonest in character can immediately disqualify an immigrant from becoming a citizen. Moral turpitude crimes are very board. Everything from grand theft to prostitution to drug offenses, and even lying on a government form, are considered moral turpitude crimes. Furthermore, being convicted of this type of crime can also result in removal either through immediate court action or by way of denying green card renewal.
If you’re an illegal immigrant or were convicted of a moral turpitude crime, it’s possible that you can be denied naturalization. However, this is not to say it’s an absolute denial. There are exceptions and other factors that ICE and immigration courts consider when deciding whether to deny citizenship or deport an immigrant.
Immigration laws allow courts to consider good moral behavior on the part of the immigrant seeking citizenship. Helping out your community regularly or doing some sort of charity work that demonstrates good moral character is generally considered when a court is deciding on a potential deportee’s fate. Courts also take into account refugee and asylum status. Immigrants who were originally admitted under either of these criteria are usually viewed in a more sympathetic light because they’re home country is hostile to them. Also, courts will look at the amount and severity of the criminal convictions. The rule of thumb here is less is better. Usually first-time offenders who have completed their incarceration time without incident and have not committed any more crimes in at least 5 years prior to applying for citizenship and/or have had their original convictions set aside, are generally given more leniency regarding naturalization.
One of the most important exceptions for first time offender is the Federal First Time Offender Act. If an immigrant has only been convicted of one crime and the crime was regarding drug possession or drug use, that conviction may be set aside and not considered by ICE or the courts in an immigrant’s deportation or naturalization hearing.
As you can probably tell, this whole naturalization question is complicated. I can’t stress enough how important it is to consult with an immigration specialist regarding your specific case. This is one of those situations where everyone can be treated vastly differently depending on their case. But if you just can’t sleep at night because you’re terrified of what your future may hold, hopefully this post will help you catch a little more shut-eye.
And if this didn’t help, you can always try watching grass grow.
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