The goal for many immigrants in the United States is to eventually obtain citizenship, so it is very likely your goal as well. As a citizen, you will get new rights that other immigrants do not, such as the right to run for an elected office and to vote in many elections. However, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) does not give citizenship to just anyone who applies for it. No, there is a rigorous process, including an evaluation of your criminal record and convictions.
USCIS wants to give citizenship only to foreign nationals who are deemed to be of “good moral character.” To try to narrow down that search, it often relies on criminal records not just from law enforcement agencies but also from such agencies around the world. Your past criminal convictions in the United States or elsewhere can affect your chances of getting citizenship, either barring you temporarily or permanently.
Temporary Citizenship Bans for Convictions
Many crimes can make you ineligible for citizenship for a temporary amount of time. For the most part, misdemeanor crimes related to sex crimes, drug offenses, or violence will impact your chances of becoming a citizen. The temporary ban’s duration can be set by an immigration court judge or a USCIS administrator, depending on the circumstances of the case, and it usually lasts at least 5 years. The one sliver of good news is that the 5-year limitation typically begins on the date of the crime in question, not on the date of conviction.
When the temporary ban is lifted, you should be able to file for citizenship again, assuming you do not have any other recent convictions or pending criminal charges. Although USCIS might allow you to refile for citizenship, it will not forget your conviction. When gauging your citizenship case, USCIS will examine your past convictions and decide if they are concerning enough to deny your petition.
Permanent Citizenship Bans Based on Past Crimes
You can be banned from filing for citizenship for life if you have been convicted of an aggravated felony or for murder. The decision to permanently block your citizenship filings stems from a criminal court’s decision, which means that USCIS probably cannot lift the ban even if it wanted.
An aggravated felony might not mean what you think it means. State laws that outline an aggravated felony do not set this definition for immigration purposes. Instead, a unique set of immigration rules decides what is and what is not an aggravated felony serious enough to impose a lifelong citizenship ban. Due to these unexpected interpretations of criminal definitions, you could be convicted of a misdemeanor based on state law but still be marked as an aggravated felon in immigration law.
Furthermore, if you have been convicted of an aggravated felony and apply for citizenship with USCIS, then you could be flagged for deportation based on that conviction. You should always speak with an immigration lawyer and criminal defense attorney about how best to proceed when you want to apply for citizenship as a convicted felon.
What Happens If You’re Convicted as a Citizen?
Are you already a citizen who is now facing serious criminal charges? Your citizenship will not influence how the criminal case against you unfolds, but it will protect you from certain immigration-related punishments. Particularly, you should not be deported from the United States if you are convicted of a crime as someone who has already earned citizenship. As a citizen, you are seen essentially the same as anyone who was born in the United States, so your conviction can sentence you to time in jail or prison, but it cannot force you to leave the country.
In rare cases, though, USCIS can attempt to denaturalize you, which means to take away your citizenship and deport you. As stated, denaturalization is quite rare. It is usually reserved for cases involving severe federal or international crimes, such as large-scale drug trafficking.
How to Gain or Keep Citizenship with a Criminal Record
If you are not sure how to gain or keep citizenship with a criminal record, then a safe starting point is to contact an attorney. Both an immigration law background and a criminal defense background will help make the most of your case. Issues can arise that will cross both of these usually separate legal spheres over one another, so it pays to be prepared.
At Carlson & Burnett in Omaha, we are a law firm capable of handling many types of cases, including immigration and criminal defense. If you have questions about your complex immigration status or options due to your criminal record, then we would be honored to help you figure out what can be done to obtain your citizenship. Please call (402) 810-8611 or contact us online now to begin.