Good Moral Character for Naturalization

By: Geoffrey J. Lamoureux

An applicant for naturalization must demonstrate – among other things – that he or she is a person of good moral character. This good moral character must be demonstrated during a period of at least five years before filing the application (or three years, if the applicant is married to, and living with, a U.S. citizen spouse). The applicant must also demonstrate good moral character from the time the application is filed until the oath of allegiance.

The standard for good moral character is based on the average citizen in the community. Therefore, the standard is not unduly burdensome to meet.

There are three types of bars to demonstrating good moral character. These are classified as permanent, conditional, and presumptive. Permanent ineligibility arises from having committed, at any time, one of several acts which permanently bar good moral character, such as an aggravated felony. Conditional ineligibility arises for some alcoholics, gamblers, former prisoners, and perjurers. Presumptive ineligibility includes failure to support dependents. These latter bars may be overcome through the passage of time, or, in some cases, with proof of extenuating circumstances.

An immigration officer decides on a case-by-case basis whether an applicant has met the good moral character standard. The immigration officer usually bases his or her decision on the applicable three or five year period before the applicant files the application, however, he or she may also consider acts prior to the three or five year period if the applicant does not appear to be rehabilitated, or if the immigration officer believes that prior acts are relevant to a current determination of the applicant’s good moral character.

Since an officer’s determination of good moral character involves consideration of statements made in the application, as well as testimony provided at the naturalization interview, it is important that an applicant file a well-drafted application, and that he or she be well-prepared to provide testimony at the interview. Indeed, an immigration officer’s interview questions are designed to elicit all prior activities in which an applicant has engaged, even outside the last three or five years.

Some applicants with a criminal history may risk deportation if they file for naturalization. State court expungements are not effective for avoiding immigration consequences of convictions, and diversion programs and stays of adjudication may be treated by the immigration service as convictions for immigration purposes, even if they do not result in a criminal conviction under criminal law. Additionally, the immigration service will negatively view an applicant who has been on probation or parole during all or part of the three or five year period prior to filing the naturalization application.

Further, almost all men in the United States between the ages of 18 and 26 must register with the selective service, including undocumented males, although those on visitor or student visas need not. Failure to comply with selective service registration may result in denial of a naturalization application for lack of good moral character.

Finally, it is a deportable offense for a noncitizen to falsely claim United States citizenship or vote in an election in violation of any United States law. Some lawful permanent residents (green card holders or “LPR”) have erroneously registered to vote after being incorrectly told they may register as LPRs, and then vote once they naturalize.

In light of the above, an immigration lawyer must carefully consider whether an LPR should apply for naturalization. He or she must make a determination about whether an applicant’s crime makes him or her ineligible for naturalization, and this determination may be complex. It depends on the particular state or federal statute under which the LPR was convicted, which must be analyzed under the applicable case law from the Board of Immigration Appeals, circuit court, or Supreme Court of the United States. For this reason, different outcomes may result for similar crimes in different jurisdictions. The immigration lawyer must also consider whether there has been a failure to register for selective service (and if so, how to avoid a negative good moral character determination), and whether there has been a false claim to United States citizenship or unlawful voting.

As can be seen, and as previously noted, due to the broad discretion that immigration officers wield, and the many aspects involved in a good moral character determination, it is important that a naturalization application be well-drafted, and that the applicant be well-prepared to provide adequate testimony at the naturalization interview.