Thursday, January 31, 2013

Is a Criminal Conviction Necessarily the Death Knell to a Naturalization Application?

Over the past few years, it has been my experience that USCIS has been very thorough in analyzing naturalization applications.  This has been confirmed to me by other experienced immigration lawyers.  USCIS sees the naturalization application as its last chance to uncover any fraud in the immigration process.  So, it will go back and examine the basis for the applicant's permanent residency.  USCIS will also be sure to look into the applicant's criminal history.  USCIS will want to make sure that the applicant meets all of the requirements of citizenship.

One such requirement is that the applicant have five years of good moral character.  By law, if a person has a criminal conviction for a crime involving moral turpitude (such as thefts, fraud and crimes of violence) in the five years preceding the naturalization application, then the applicant will not qualify for having five years of good moral character, and thus will not qualify for citizenship.

But, does that necessarily mean that every conviction for a crime involving moral turpitude in the past five years is the death knell for a citizenship application?  Not necessarily.  There is case law that says that when a person's conviction qualifies for the petty offense exception, then that person is not automatically disqualified for citizenship.

The petty offense exception holds that where the maximum possible sentence for a crime is one year in jail, and where the actual sentence is less than six months, then even if the conviction is for a crime involving moral turpitude, the applicant can still be considered for citizenship.

First, that means that if a permanent resident is charged with a crime involving moral turpitude, one of the goals of the criminal representation should be to reduce the charge to a misdemeanor, and seek an actual jail sentence of less than six months.  For example, if a person were charged with larceny in Virginia, which is a felony, a possible strategy for the criminal defense attorney could be to negotiate a plea for petty larceny, which is a misdemeanor with a maximum possible sentence of one year, and seek less than six months in jail time.  The defense attorney would need to keep in mind that the whole sentence is considered, even if most of it is suspended.  Thus, if a person receives a sentence of 360 days, with 330 suspended, he would not qualify for the petty offense exception.  But, if that same person receives a sentence of 175 days, with 145 suspended, then, even though the actual time spent in jail is the same, he would qualify for the petty offense exception.

Nonetheless, the conventional wisdom among immigration attorneys has been that even if the conviction qualifies for the petty offense exception, and thus does not automatically disqualify a person from having good moral character, the conviction can still be used by an adjudicator in weighing discretionary factors.  Our advice has typically been to wait until five years after the conviction to apply for citizenship.

While past cases cannot predict future results, I have had some success in naturalization applications even when there has been a criminal conviction in the past five years.  When faced with a client who has gone forward with a naturalization application despite the criminal conviction, the first step is to make sure that the conviction qualifies for the petty offense exception.  Under the Supreme Court case of Padilla v. Kentucky, there is some avenue for an applicant to correct mistakes made by well-intentioned criminal defense attorneys who just did not understand immigration law.  If the applicant is in a situation where the full jail sentence was for greater than six months, but most of it was suspended, it could be possible to go back and re-open the case to ask the court to reduce the full jail sentence to less than six months.  To do this, first the conviction must be less than two years old.  Then you have to work hard to convince the Commonwealth's Attorney and the Judge to go ahead with the plan.  This is not always an easy task.

Once you are sure that the conviction qualifies for the petty offense exception, the next step is to build a record of good moral character.  The applicant will need to show that the sentence was served, that all court costs were paid, that any restitution was paid, that any probation time was served, and that any required community service took place.  To be safe, the applicant should do more than this.  Affidavits and letters from friends, family, pastors, employers and community leaders, attesting to the applicant's good moral character will go a long way to convince the adjudicator that despite the mistake that led to the conviction, this is a person deserving of citizenship.

It must be emphasized that this course of action does not guarantee success.  If you have an adjudicator who believes that the conviction itself, even though it is a petty offense, is sufficient in weighing the discretionary factors to deny citizenship, then you will be out of luck.  There is an appeals process.  But, it is extremely difficult, if not next to impossible, to overturn a discretionary call like that.

Citizenship applications should not be treated as simple, run of the mill proceedings.  An applicant would be well-advised to consider how USCIS will analyze the application.  It will likely make sense to consult an attorney first, and go over everything, from conviction records to how the applicant became a permanent resident in the first place, to make sure that the application will go smoothly.

By:  William J. Kovatch, Jr.
(703) 837-8832

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Driving Without a License: More Likely to Get Jail Time, But the Feds Aren't Necessarily Biting Anymore

Driving without a license is a misdemeanor in Virginia.  It can carry up to one year in jail.  There had been a pattern, particularly in Prince William County.  A Hispanic driver would be pulled over for a minor traffic offense.  If the driver was undocumented, he couldn't get a license, so he'd be charged with driving without a license.  The plan would be to get the undocumented alien in jail, so he could be reported to ICE, and ICE could put a detainer on him to start removal proceedings.  Thus, the job of lawyers like me was to try our hardest to keep people charged with driving without a license out of jail.

Well, now there is good news and bad news on that front.  First, the bad news.  As short as a few months ago, I was able to negotiate a higher fine in lieu of jail time for people charged with their second or more driving without a license.  This was true even in Prince William County.

At least in Prince William County, that is no longer true.  When a person has a prior driving without a license charge, Prince William County Commonwealth Attorneys are now insisting on at least one day in jail.  They're not willing to consider a higher fine, even the maximum of $2,500, in lieu of jail time.

But here's the good news.  About two years ago, I had a client whose only crime on his record was a single driving without a license charge.  For whatever reason, the police officer actually took this fellow into custody pending trial.  In that situation, there was little I could do.  Since he was taken into jail, he was reported to ICE and ICE put a detainer on him to start removal proceedings.  And this was in Fairfax County.

Well, it seems like that may be a thing of the past.  I had a client who was forced to spend a night in jail after a second driving without a license.  I totally expected an ICE detainer, and the start of removal proceedings.  I was pleasantly surprised when I called the Prince William County Jail the next morning, and was told that my client was released as scheduled.  It seems that ICE may not be starting removal proceedings against undocumented aliens where the only convictions are for driving without a license.

This turn of events would seem to flow from the evolution of the Obama Administration's deportation policy.  Back in June of 2011, ICE announced that it would concentrate its enforcement resources on high priority cases, such as violent criminals and gangs.  Then, this year, the Administration announced that it would grant certain undocumented aliens deferred action, effectively allowing them to remain in the United States, and give them work authorization.  In October of 2012, in a move that angered Prince William County officials, ICE announced that it was going to discontinue a program that involved local police and federal cooperation when local police picked up a suspected immigration violator.

It seems that the Federal Government is putting its money where the President's mouth is.  Run-ins with the law for minor offenses no longer seems like a reason for ICE to start removal proceedings.  A person convicted for a second charge of driving without a license may have to face the inconvenience of a night in jail in Prince William County.  But, at least for now, it appears that if all you have are convictions for driving without a license, ICE is not interested in pushing for deportation.

By: William J. Kovatch, Jr.
(703) 837-8832