When going through the naturalization interview, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) officer will judge whether you have the good moral character required to be a citizen of the United States. Good moral character seems like such a subjective requirement for citizenship. You might be wondering if it’s enough to look at the officer and say, “Can’t you tell by just looking at me that I’m a good person?” Unfortunately, that’s not enough.
However, judging good moral character is less subjective than you might think, and there are strict guidelines and data the officers look through to make their decision.
What is the Statutory Period for Good Moral Character?
In most cases, USCIS is only looking at your history starting five years before you submit your naturalization application. If you’re going through the naturalization process as a spouse to a U.S. citizen, the statutory period is reduced to three years.
It’s important to know that the statutory period is up until the moment you are actually naturalized. So if everything looks good after the interview, but you get a DUI before you are actually naturalized, then you severely risk getting denied.
While the officer may be scrutinizing the statutory period, it doesn’t mean that they are blind to the prior years. If you show extensive years of arrests, convictions, and other unlawful acts before the statutory period, then the officer is going to want to see that you’ve reformed your ways during the statutory period.
Unlawful Acts During the Statutory Period
When going over your criminal record, USCIS is not just looking at convictions to judge good moral character. Admissions can also be negative marks against your character. Even acts that are legal in your state but are illegal federally can affect an officer’s decision.
The following are some of the more common unlawful acts during a statutory period that will prove poor moral character:
- Moral turpitude crimes
- Receiving 5-year sentence
- Controlled substance violation
- Incarcerated for 180 days
- Lying under oath
- Illegal gambling
- Habitual drunkard
- Two or more DUIs
- Failure to support dependents
Moral turpitude is a term used by USCIS based on court precedence and not any actual legal definition. In plain terms, crimes involving moral turpitude are any unlawful acts that immoral. Below are some examples.
- Criminal intent or recklessness against another person
- Theft or forgery of government property or an individual’s property
- Sexual or family crimes
- Counterfeiting or attempting to bribe a government official
5-Year Sentence and 180 Days of Incarceration
When USCIS is scrutinizing sentencing time, they are adding the terms in aggregate. For instance, if you served two sentences, and one was for two years and the other for three years, USCIS considers that five years.
USCIS also counts the 180 days of imprisonment in aggregate.
For both categories, if you were sentenced or imprisoned for those time periods due to a political offense, then USCIS will disregard the sentencing and imprisonment.
Controlled Substance Violation
The controlled substance violation is one that can get many applicants in trouble due to changing laws. Many states and cities have legalized medicinal and/or recreational marijuana. However, federal law still considers marijuana a Schedule 1 controlled substance. So if you take medical marijuana or take part in recreational marijuana, you can be considered of poor moral character even if it’s legal in your state, and even if you have never had any arrests or convictions in relation to a controlled substance.
Lying Under Oath
Not only is lying under oath seen negatively but failing to disclose records is also judged as poor moral character.
Being arrested for public intoxication is not the only criteria for being considered a habitual drunkard by USCIS. If there are divorce documents, other arrest information, employment records, or school records that show a pattern of being a habitual drunk, then USCIS will not consider you someone of good moral character.
Failure to Support Dependents
Failing to support dependents doesn’t only mean not paying child support. If you desert a minor or don’t pay enough child support, you will also be judged poorly by USCIS. Under this category, the officer will look at any extenuating circumstances that may have prevented you from supporting your dependents like unemployment or mistakes or miscalculations by the court.
If you committed adultery and it ended your marriage, then USCIS will not find that you have good moral character. The exceptions to this are if you and your spouse thought you were divorced, but it was later found invalid, or you couldn’t get a divorce and were separated.
Other Unlawful Acts
USCIS will also look at the following unlawful acts on a case-by-case basis to see if they find the applicant has poor moral character:
- Bank fraud
- Tax avoidance
- Falsifying records
- Insurance fraud
- Unlawful attempt to register to vote, unlawful voting, and unlawful claim of U.S. citizenship
- Social security fraud
- Unlawful harassment
- Violating a U.S. embargo
- Conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance
Acts Permanently Proving Poor Moral Character
USCIS judges the following acts as a permanent bar to good moral character even if they occurred at any time other than the statutory period:
- Not appearing to court where the punishment would be 2 years imprisonment
- Attempted aggravated felony
- Obstruction of justice
- Serving 5 years for failure to appear in court
- Imprisoned one year for document fraud
- Smuggling people
- Any child pornography offense
- Abuse of a minor
- Trafficking controlled substances, firearms, or destructive devices
- Laundering over $10,000
- Serving at least one year for theft, racketeering, gambling, or any violent crime
- Any unlawful act with firearms or explosive materials involved
- Gathering or distributing classified information
- Managing, transporting, or trafficking prostitutes
- Over $10,000 in tax evasion or fraud
- An aggravated felon entering or re-entering the U.S. illegally
- Severe violations of religious freedom
- Participating in genocide in any way
- Involved with extrajudicial killings or torture
For a full list and specific details to these permanent bars, you can learn more from Volume 12 Part F of the USCIS Policy Manual.
Legal Data Available to USCIS
USCIS will have access to any criminal record that might exist. Also, USCIS might request you submit any dispositions for any arrests you may have in your record even if you weren’t convicted of a crime. USCIS will also look at any unlawful activities committed abroad and may request you submit additional evidence and information from other countries.
Legal Data USCIS Won’t Consider
Juvenile convictions, convictions from certain vacated judgments, and pardoned convictions before the statutory period will not affect the officer’s decision on your character.
However, convictions that were deferred or expunged will still be judged negatively by USCIS.
Good Moral Character and Deportation
If USCIS finds you lack good moral character, you can potentially be deported. In many cases, you will likely just be denied naturalization without being deported. However, that can be a big risk to take, and that is why the assistance of an immigration attorney is imperative in the naturalization process.
Acts Proving Good Moral Character
Let’s lift the mood in this post, and talk about the positive. There are ways to prove your good moral character, whether you have no criminal record or do have one and need to show reformation and rehabilitation.
Think about proving good moral character as the awards and volunteer section of a resume. Any special recognition or awards from your employer or school can help prove your case. Any proof of community involvement or involvement with a religious organization will also help prove good moral character.
If you know you have a clean record, you can request an FBI background request on yourself and submit that along with a police clearance letter from every place you’ve lived. You can also submit a No Criminal Record Certificate from countries abroad where you’ve resided. To learn the process of how to request the form from specific countries, visit the State Department’s website.
Another helpful tool to prove a good moral character is an immigration reference letter. This letter from family, friends, or colleagues should speak to your character with good moral character examples.
However, one of the most important ways to establish good moral character is by being honest in your N-400 form and in your answers to the officer during the naturalization interview.