One of the common mistakes I see lawful permanent residents make is applying for naturalization when they have a criminal conviction without consulting with an immigration attorney. If that prior conviction is a deportable offense, USCIS can, and often will, issue a Notice To Appear to the applicant and place the applicant in removal proceedings. Even if USCIS does not place the applicant in removal proceedings, the naturalization application may be denied based on a finding that the applicant lacks “good moral character.”
In order to be eligible for Naturalization, an applicant must establish to USCIS that he or she has “good moral character” for a statutory period of time. For most people, that statutory period will be five years. For those applying for naturalization based on their marriage to a U.S. Citizen, the statutory period is three years. There are some exceptions to these statutory periods that are beyond the scope of this blog.
The Immigration and Nationality Act proscribes certain automatic bars to establishing “good moral character.” This means that if you fall under any of the automatic bar categories, you cannot establish good moral character and your naturalization application will be denied. You would have to reapply after the statutory period ran.
For example, say you, a lawful permanent resident, were convicted of a petit theft last year. You have been a lawful permanent resident for twenty years, but never naturalized. Because petit theft is a crime involving moral turpitude, you would be ineligible to naturalize for five years from the date of conviction, because a conviction for a crime involving moral turpitude is an automatic bar to establishing good moral character.
There are other non-convictions that can preclude a finding of good moral character. For example, an admission to certain offenses can also lead to a finding that the applicant lacks good moral character. Failure to pay taxes, failure to support dependents, providing a false statement for purpose of receiving an immigration benefit, have all been used as bases to find a lack of good moral character.
The bottom line is that if you have any concerns about whether USCIS will find that you lack good moral character under INA section 101(f), consult with an attorney before you file.
You can view the automatic statutory bars to good moral character at INA Section 101(f) here.