The Effect of Past Criminal Convictions on Naturalization
Even if you are a lawful U.S. permanent resident with a green card and you are arrested and convicted of an offence or even if the charge has been dismissed, this could threaten your status in the country.
For a start having a police record could ruin your chances of gaining U.S. citizenship and you could even be deported. If the arrests have been dismissed by a court, the penalties aren’t quite so severe - but they still must be disclosed. There is no such thing as expungement in matters of US immigration and naturalization. Even if the judge himself tells you that it can't be held against you, it can.
One of the requirements for U.S. citizenship is being of moral character and this doesn’t just mean that you are not a convicted criminal. There are other components that make up “moral character”, such as consistent employment, trouble free home life and participation in community based activities like church, your child’s school and fundraising activities.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS), when determining your moral character will focus on the 5 years before you submitted your citizenship application (3 years if applying as a spouse of a US citizen.). So if you were arrested in this time frame, even if the charges were dismissed, it would be tactical to wait a little longer before filing your citizenship application, depending on the type of arrest. This 5 year period is not fixed, as the USCIS may choose to look back further than this, but would be limited in terms of action able to be taken for acts that fall completely outside the statutory period.
Normally, in the case of crimes that could result in an immigrant being either deported or not qualifying for U.S. citizenship, a conviction should have taken place. However, there are some exceptions, including if the USCIS has “reason to believe” that you have been involved in prostitution or drug trafficking, or are a chronic alcoholic, or use and abuse drugs. This could involve an arrest but with no conviction. The USCIS decision maker may decide that your moral character is not good enough for citizenship.
Also, a holder of a green card while residing in the U.S. who is found to be a drug user, even without a conviction, can be deported. Basically, a green card holder who is thinking of becoming naturalized may inadvertently open a can of worms when it comes to his or her moral standing, whether a conviction has taken place or not.
All arrests must be disclosed
Form N-400 is the Application for Naturalization form and one of the form’s questions is: Have you ever been arrested or kept in custody by a law enforcer or cited? Another question is: Have you committed any crime or offense but you weren’t arrested? You may wonder who would answer yes to such a question. You'd be surprised at the number of times we've advised our clients to do exactly this: because the "crime" they would admit to wouldn't bar their naturalization, but failure to admit to it would.
The USCIS wants the fullest and most reliable picture of your moral character.
If you fail to tell the truth on Form N-400 you could be putting yourself at risk in the future and even lose your right to citizenship. All citizenship applicants must undertake a fingerprint check, so any arrest is likely to be discovered.
Naturalization is very difficult to reverse, so it's the last time USCIS will be looking at you, your background, and determining whether you deserve to be a US citizen. So be aware that N-400's are scrutinized very carefully.
If you are in doubt about filing an application for citizenship you should contact an experienced immigration attorney who will be able to assess your situation and tell you when the right time is likely for an application.
Learn about other common natualization pitfalls, or return to the main Citizenship page.