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

1 comment:

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