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Applying for Citizenship if You Have Criminal Convictions - WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW

The other day at court, I overheard someone trying to do what she thought would help her mother get her US citizenship. But she came close to putting her mother into the deportation process instead. 

Here's what happened. Rosa (not her real name) wanted her mother, Soledad (also not her real name), to finally become a US citizen. Rosa knew a little about the process and knew that you had to provide USCIS (immigration) with Certificates of Disposition - official court records - for all past criminal cases. Rosa went to the clerk's window and said "hello, I am here because my mother is applying for citizenship and I need the dispositions on all her cases." The clerk said, "no problem. Let me check what's here." I started to pay attention to this conversation because I sensed a problem. The clerk then said, "well I can see about five cases here. You want all of those?" Rosa said, "yes thank you."  "uh-oh!" I thought. And then I told myself I would try to catch up with her after she finished at the clerk's window and before she left the building. Later in this post, we will see what happened with Rosa and her mother, Soledad.

Most people think that USCIS overlooks a criminal case from long ago and that old cases don't matter for any other part of the US immigration system. Sadly, that is not true. You should TALK TO AN IMMIGRATION LAWYER:

-even if your criminal case is finished and you are done with all sentences or probation

-even if the criminal case was a long time ago

-even if the criminal case was only a misdemeanor

If you have any criminal convictions on your record, TALK TO AN IMMIGRATION LAWYER before you leave the United States on a trip abroad or before you submit any applications to USCIS, including your green card renewal and the citizenship application. 

Rosa knew that USCIS will look at Soledad's past five years of addresses and work history, and will decide whether Soledad has  "good moral character" during the past five years. And that USCIS and the immigration officer will want information about Soledad's entire criminal history. But Rosa did not realize that her mother could still be at risk of receiving a citizenship denial and maybe a deportation for the old criminal cases. This is why you should always speak to an immigration attorney about your past criminal history before you take any steps at all involving citizenship. You need to be SURE that you are not deportable because of old criminal cases, or inadmissible because of old criminal cases. You want to be prepared before you submit your application to USCIS and you may even decide that you do not want to submit your application (to avoid alerting immigration authorities about your old criminal convictions). Of course, this is also true for more recent criminal convictions, or if you still have a criminal case open now. 

How are old criminal convictions going to affect me when I apply for citizenship? 

There are a few ways: 

First: your citizenship application can lead you to immigration court for a possible deportation if you have an old criminal conviction(s) that makes you deportable. This often happens with old drug convictions, but it can happen with shoplifting or crimes involving harm to children or gun possession, and the list goes on. The list of criminal convictions, which could put you into the deportation process, is long. USCIS will put your citizenship case on hold while you first appear in immigration court to fight a deportation case. 

**if this is you, first get legal advice about whether you can beat the case in immigration court or not. Immigration law does not follow common sense, and you will want to understand the complications in your case to see if you can win it and avoid a deportation.

Second: For very old criminal convictions, the immigration authorities at DHS (Department of Homeland Security) may still not have realized what is on your criminal record. Filing a new application or traveling outside the U.S. will alert them when you get fingerprinted or file an application. Once the immigration authorities know about your criminal history, they can start a deportation case against you for any deportable convictions. (The same thing will happen if you return to the US after a trip for convictions that make you inadmissible.) So get good legal advice and speak to an immigration lawyer before you file any immigration applications. 

Third: You may not be deportable or inadmissible but your criminal cases could lead to a denial of your naturalization application because of the good moral character requirement. Each applicant is required to show good moral character for either 5 or (sometime 3) years. Basically, USCIS looks for any reason possible to find a a lack of good moral character. They can say you don't have it if you have a recent arrest (even if dismissed) that shows lack of rehabilitation, or you recently finished your sentence or probation, or you provide other information that shows lack of rehabilitation or lack of good moral character. USCIS does not approve cases with driving while intoxicated offenses in the past 5 (or 3) years.

To be SAFE, and MAXIMIZE YOUR CHANCE OF APPROVAL, speak to an immigration attorney before you file anything - applications, renewals, or citizenship - or before you travel outside the U.S.!

So what happened with Rosa and Soledad? 

I did catch up with Rosa and introduced myself. We looked at the certificates of disposition that the clerk had given Rosa for Soledad's past criminal history. Soledad had four NY convictions involving gambling crimes. Rosa told me that she didn't think they would affect her mother because they happened almost 30 years ago. I gave Rosa the information that you are reading now. With the help of an immigration attorney, now Soledad and Rosa can understand her risk in applying for citizenship and decide what to do.

Call my office for a consultation to discuss your own situation and whether you can apply for US citizenship. With or without criminal history on your record, the citizenship process can become complicated. Through expert legal guidance, I can help to make the process smooth and successful. 

Elise McCaffrey