Can I Get a Green Card With a Criminal Record?

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A criminal record can have a disastrous impact on a foreign national seeking entry into the U.S. and most certainly on anyone seeking a green card. For applicants who have committed serious crimes, obtaining a green card will likely be impossible. Applicants who have been convicted of low-level crimes may still be able to obtain a green card.

Whether your crime is serious in the eyes of the courts, and whether it will prevent you from getting a green card, may not be easy to determine. The key factors to consider (most likely with the help of a lawyer) are:

  • the name given to, definition of, and in some cases facts surrounding the case itself
  • your age at the time the crime was committed
  • the number of convictions on your record and
  • in some cases, the maximum possible penalty and length of prison sentence imposed

This information will need to be compared with the immigration laws addressing criminal convictions (contained in the Immigration and Nationality Act, or I.N.A.) to assess whether a green card remains a possibility.

Crimes That Will Block You From Getting a Green Card

The immigration laws list a number of crimes that make a person “inadmissible,” or ineligible for a green card. Below is an overview of those crimes.

Crime Involving Moral Turpitude and Controlled Substance Violations

A person convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude (CIMT) or a controlled substance violation will be denied a green card, unless the person falls under one of the exceptions listed below.

A controlled substance violation includes illegally possessing drugs such as cocaine, marijuana or heroine.

The meaning of “moral turpitude,” however, was not defined by Congress. As a result, the courts have had to take on the job of defining it -- and their decisions have not always been consistent. For the sake of simplicity, it is best said that a CIMT involves some evil intent. Thus, crimes like murder, fraud, theft, and more serious crimes of violence will be considered CIMTs, whereas simple assault or battery, a DUI (with no aggravating factors) or an infraction (moving and parking violations) will probably not. Ultimately, however, it is best to seek out a qualified attorney to assess whether a specific crime involves moral turpitude.

Moral Turpitude and Controlled Substance Exceptions

A person convicted of a CIMT or a controlled substance violation may still be granted a green card if the crime fits within one of a few exceptions. They are:

  • the crime was committed when the person was under 18, it has been five years since the crime was committed, and the person is no longer in jail; or
  • the person was convicted of a crime for which the maximum possible penalty is no more than a year and the actual term of imprisonment was no more than six months. This second exception is commonly called the “petty offense” exception.

Other Crimes That Make a Person Inadmissible

The Immigration and Nationality Act (I.N.A.) specifically describes various other crimes that will keep a person from obtaining a green card based on inadmissibility. These include drug trafficking, kidnapping, prostitution, human trafficking, profiting financially from a family member’s human trafficking (with an exception for children of the trafficker), money laundering, and multiple criminal convictions with an aggregate sentence of at least five years. It also includes cases where the person committed a serious criminal offense as defined by I.N.A. § 101(h) and then asserted immunity from prosecution, left the United States, and refused to submit to the jurisdiction of a U.S. court.

In addition, even if someone commits a crime that does not match one of the grounds of inadmissibility under the immigration statute, the immigration authorities may deny the green card as a matter of discretion. This is likely to happen if you have been convicted of an “aggravated felony,” described in the portion of the immigration statutes that discusses whether people who already have green cards are deportable (I.N.A. § 101(a)(43).) Examples of “aggravated felonies,” include murder, rape, sexual abuse of a minor, and various serious theft and money laundering offences.

Will the Crime Still Count If It Has Been Removed From Your Record?

A number of states allow a crime to be removed from a person’s record. One method involves the removal (expungement) or sealing of the court record after a conviction. The other occurs prior to a final order in which a judge will defer action while the person takes part in a program and probation. After completing the program and probation, the record is removed. This second method includes such programs as diversion, which is usually for first-time drug offenders in which the record is cleared after the person completes a program that includes such things as drug counseling and/or community service and probation. 

Even after these crimes are removed from the record, they will likely still prevent a foreign national form obtaining a green card. For immigration law purposes, a conviction can never be removed. A person who was granted diversion will be deemed to have a conviction if he or she was required to enter a plea before the judge granted diversion.

What If the Conviction Was Entered Outside the United States?

The impact of a foreign conviction on a person’s green card application can be even harder to determine. Foreign criminal laws can be quite different from criminal laws in the United States. The conviction will need to be compared to laws in the U.S. -- usually federal law or Washington DC law -- to find the one that most closely resembles the foreign conviction, before assessing whether a green card is possible.

Some Crimes Can Be Excused

In some cases, you can ask for what’s called a “waiver,” or legal forgiveness of your crime. This depends on the nature of the crime itself, as well as your subsequent rehabilitation or connection to family members who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents.

Seek Professional Legal Advice

Interpreting the impact of a particular crime on green card eligibility is one of the more complex areas of immigration law. While similar criminal laws may exist among the various states and countries, each jurisdiction crafts its laws differently. Thus, each law under which a person is convicted must be compared to what is listed in the immigration statutes. We strongly recommended that any foreign national with a criminal record, whether eligible for a green card now or thinking of applying for one in the future, consult with an immigration attorney as soon as possible to assess the impact of the conviction upon the immigration process.

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