Criminal bars to US citizenship

There comes a time in  the life of every lawful permanent resident (LPR) in this country to make the decision to be an American.  When the country’s immigration “situation” is fraught with uncertainty and fear (imagined or not), such personal decision becomes a “no brainer.”   U.S. immigration statistics data show a significant increase in citizenship applications very recently.  The first quarter  from 2014-2017 showed the following number of applications for naturalization (for comparison purposes): 2014 (202,043); 2015 (197,590); 2016 (252, 254); and 2017 (289,988).  News reports indicate a 27.2 % increase.  LPRs choose to be citizens because they want to be able to vote or avail of more public benefits or simply, to live to the fullest their ‘American dream’.  For residents with  ‘clean slate’ lives , becoming a U.S. citizen will not be difficult.  Those with a  criminal past, secret or otherwise, may be consumed with doubts.  It could range from a  DUI (driving under the influence) to murder.  Do they have  a reason  to be afraid to file for citizenship?

Lately, there are pronouncements  that meritocracy will be the policy . Maybe not the poor huddled masses,  but we will welcome those who  can afford to contribute to the good of society and those who can adhere to the rules of  law and order. Grandiose statements but requirements that are not new.  Quick ualities that they look for among applicants have been the same standards in place since the first “Rule of Naturalization” in March of 1790.  One of the more sensitive and strictly followed standards in adjudicating an application for naturalization (N-400) is the applicant’s ‘good moral character’ (GMC).  When one is arrested, charged or/and convicted of an offense, it  becomes very significant in deciding whether applying for a benefit, as important as obtaining U.S. citizenship, is an option to take.  There are “conditional” and “permanent” bars to ‘good moral character’.  Conditional bars pertain to acts and/or omissions that were done within the last 5 years since filing the N400 application (statutory period).  An application can be denied if an  act/omission occurred within the statutory period.  Needless to say, one can re-apply beyond the lapse of 5 years from the occurrence thereof.

Conditional bars to GMC may include non-criminal acts such as failure to file income tax returns or register in the Selective Service System (for males 18-26) or pay child support to dependent children.  Criminal arrests, charges and convictions, per se, can render one lacking in GMC, if occurring within the statutory period.  Immigration officers maintain the discretion to decide  lack of GMC and deny an application, even if the act was committed beyond the statutory period.  The list of acts and convictions that could be ‘conditional bars to GMC’ is long and ranges from commission of crimes involving ‘moral turpitude’, being sentenced to a crime with an imprisonment of 180 days or more, prostitution, bigamy, habitual drunkenness, adultery, having been sentenced to a total of 5 years or more, controlled substance violations, etc.  Applicants convicted of  these crimes must  present proof of having been rehabilitated or reintegrated  to societal norms of good conduct, in order for their re-application (N400) to be considered.

Permanent bars to GMC prevent a LPR from ever obtaining U.S. citizenship.  Examples of permanent bars to GMC are convictions and acts such as: murder, aggravated felony committed after 11/29/1990, genocide, or religious persecution of others.  Between 1988  till 1996, several amendments were introduced into the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) to broaden the definition of “aggravated felony” and the list has gone up to 36 offenses.  Local standards of whether crimes should be classified as misdemeanor or grave offenses will not be relevant as immigration law  has specific definitions of an  “aggravated felony” that will make a person deportable and/or be permanently barred from applying for U.S. citizenship.  Prior  legal consultation for those with these types of predicament can clear the way for an otherwise rocky or lost path to citizenship.

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Maria Rita Reyes-Stuby is a licensed attorney in Michigan. She is a graduate of the University of the Philippines College of Law. She specializes in immigration and practices in Las Vegas, Michigan, California and other states. Bernadette Bretana, a graduate of the Ateneo Law School and Ms. Stuby are licensed attorneys in the Philippines. Please call @702-403-4704 or email her at [email protected] or go to for any questions on this article.

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