Good Moral Character Needed for Naturalized U.S. Citizenship

By Ilona Bray, J.D., University of Washington Law School
How good does one have to be in order to meet the legal requirements to become a U.S. citizen?

According to reports by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which is part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), upwards of 700,000 people are awarded U.S. citizenship each year through the application and approval process known as "naturalization." Each one of these applicants had to meet a number of legal requirements, including showing good moral character, especially during the years leading up to the application.

There's no clear cut definition of "good moral character" in U.S. immigration law. There are, however, some ways you can show that you have had it for the requisite time period; or at least show that you haven't done anything to undermine or destroy it.

For some people, however, particularly those who've committed certain types of crimes, there is no way to show the good moral character required for U.S. naturalization.

For How Many Years Must an Applicant Show Good Moral Character?

When you file an application for naturalization, USCIS has the authority to ask about or investigate your activities during your entire life. However, USCIS will give the greatest scrutiny to your behavior and conduct during what's called the "statutory period." That means the number of years you were required to have had a valid green card (U.S. lawful permanent residence) before filing for U.S. citizenship.

For most applicants, that's the five-year period immediately before filing the application. For applicants who have been married to and living with a U.S. citizen for the three years leading up to submitting the application, however, the good moral character review period (the "statutory period") drops to three years.

What Is "Good Moral Character?"

U.S. courts have defined good moral character to mean character that measures up to the standards of average citizens in the community where the person lives. In other words, your present and past actions and behavior should be in line with that of your neighbors. (If, however, many of your neighbors are getting into trouble with the law, you're not likely to be able to use that as an excuse for doing the same yourself.) More generally, you're expected to be a law-abiding, productive member of society.

As a practical matter, it's often easier to understand what good moral character is by looking at what it's not. USCIS will likely determine that you don't have the required good moral character for naturalization if, at the time of your application or during the statutory period, you:

  • committed fraud in obtaining your green card
  • were convicted of violating any controlled substance (drug) law, except for a single offense of simple possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana
  • have admitted to or been convicted of a crime of moral turpitude
  • were convicted of any crime for which you had to go to jail or prison for a term of 180 days or more
  • have been convicted of two or more gambling offenses or get most of your money from gambling
  • were involved in prostitution or commercial vice
  • smuggled aliens into the United States
  • were or ever have been a habitual drunkard, or
  • are a male and didn't registered with the U.S. Selective Service Program while between the ages of 18 and 25.

These are only some of the things that might show a lack of good moral character. One possible solution for people who have any of these on their record is to wait until the statutory period of five or three years has gone by, and then apply (paying special attention to proving that one has fully reformed and been a person of good moral character, for example with a solid history of employment as well as family and community involvement, in recent years). But even that can be risky, for example if the fraud committed in obtaining a green card means that the green card should never have been approved in the first place, in which case USCIS is likely to institute removal (deportation) proceedings.

What's more, an immigrant absolutely won't be able to establish good moral character and become a naturalized citizen, no matter how many years have gone by, if the person has been convicted of:

  • an aggravated felony after November 29, 1990. Aggravated felonies include crimes like drug trafficking and armed bank robbery, as well as many less serious crimes such as bribery and counterfeiting or mutilating a passport, or
  • murder, regardless of when it happened.
Definitely see an attorney for a full analysis of your case if you have any immigration fraud or crimes on your record or if anything on the above list seems to apply to you.

Proving Good Moral Character

If you have a "clean" record, with no criminal convictions, and are generally a law-abiding member of your neighborhood and society, showing that you have good moral character shouldn't be hard.

To help things, though, you may want to get letters from people like your neighbors, church or other religious leader, and employer, vouching for your good character and detailing positive things about how you live your life or contribute to U.S. society.

Also, be sure to tell the truth when answering questions on the application or when asked by USCIS personnel, especially about past problems with law enforcement. Don't make the mistake of thinking that because a simple traffic ticket or a 20-year-old gambling conviction won't make a difference on your application, you can just leave it off. In the eyes of the USCIS, your intentional failure to tell it about such things is a clear indication that you don't have good moral character. This is true even if the withheld facts wouldn't have caused denial of your application.

For example, getting a speeding ticket isn't one of the grounds that show a lack of good moral character. However, if you don't tell USCIS about that ticket, it may lead to the denial of your application because your attempt to hide the truth, or your failure to be completely honest, shows a lack of good character.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • I listed my prior theft conviction on my application for naturalization, and now the USCIS wants me to submit a copy of my criminal record. My record has been sealed by the court. How can I get a copy?
  • I was convicted ten years ago of drug possession, but the conviction has been expunged from my record. Do I need to list that old conviction on my naturalization application?
  • My application for naturalization was denied because I didn't tell USCIS about how I was arrested two years ago when the police thought I was involved in car theft. It was a mistake, and I was let go after they caught the real thief. Can I appeal the denial of my application? Do I need a lawyer for the appeal? How much will it cost?

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