Becoming A U.S. Citizen Despite A Checkered Past

By: Attorney Devin M. Connolly

Becoming A U.S. Citizen Despite A Checkered PastIt is no surprise that many people dream of one day becoming a U.S citizen.  After all, a person must be a U.S. citizen to vote in elections, file petitions so their parents can immigrate to the U.S., be issued a U.S. passport, etc.  Despite the many advantages of U.S. citizenship, it should also come as no surprise that people sometimes do things that make their path to U.S. citizenship more challenging.  These mistakes are a part of life.  But do these mistakes prevent a person from being granted U.S. citizenship?

One of the most common ways a person acquires U.S. citizenship is by filing an application for naturalization.  There are several requirements a person must satisfy for their application to be approved.  They include permanent resident status for a prescribed period of time, physical presence in the U.S., and good moral character.  Many applications are denied because the applicant lacks the requisite good moral character.

The concept of requiring an applicant to possess good moral character for a prescribed period of time prior to submitting their application is one of the more complex requirements of naturalization.  Many acts that one might not think of as evidencing bad moral character may nevertheless be considered in making a good moral character determination.  The Immigration and Nationality Act lists several specific acts that preclude an applicant from establishing good moral character.  These include lying to obtain an immigration benefit, committing certain criminal offenses, the willful failure to pay support for dependents, and engaging in an extramarital affair which tended to destroy an existing marriage.  However, the list of prohibited acts is not absolute.  Thus, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service may deny an application on good moral character grounds even though their act was not specifically prohibited.   Furthermore, acts outside of the required good moral character period can also be considered in determining an applicant’s good moral character.

Regarding prior criminal acts, a disqualifying criminal conviction in the prescribed period of required good moral character will automatically render an individual ineligible for naturalization.  However, a disqualifying criminal offense outside of the prescribed period can also cause an application for naturalization to be denied.  The government is afforded broad discretion to examine otherwise non-disqualifying criminal convictions outside the prescribed period to determine if the underlying facts warrant a favorable finding of good moral character.  Therefore, an analysis of good moral character extends far beyond the prescribed period.  These issues may not result in an automatic denial but they must be adequately explained.

When applying for naturalization with a criminal history, it is also important to determine whether the conviction could cause not only the non-citizen’s application for naturalization to be denied, but also the Department of Homeland Security to attempt take away their permanent resident status (Green card) and deport them to their native country. The answer to this question depends on various things, including whether the underlying crime is considered a ‘Crime Involving Moral Turpitude’ or an ‘Aggravated Felony,’ the date of the crime and the date on which the person was issue their green card, etc.  This should be carefully analyzed before submitting an application for naturalization.

Another issue that is not uncommon is an applicant failing to register with the Selective Service.  If you are a male living in the U.S. and between the age of 18 and 25, you are likely required to register with the Selective Service.  Failing to register before you turn 26-years-old is often grounds for a denial of an application for naturalization.  The applicant must then wait until they turn 31-years-old before they may be granted U.S. citizenship.

A final issue worth mentioning is the submission of incorrect or fraudulent tax returns.  Claiming ineligible dependents, not reporting all income, or filing under the wrong category could potentially cause an application to be denied.

As you can see, the process of acquiring U.S. citizenship is often far more complex than you might expect.  It is important to remember that, though you may have made some mistakes in the past, those prior mistakes are not always fatal.  If you are interested in applying for U.S. citizenship, it is advisable to retain the services of an experienced and knowledgeable immigration attorney so that your eligibility and chances of success can be carefully analyzed.