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Can You Get Your Citizenship with a Felony? Find Out

Obtaining naturalization as an undocumented immigrant can feel like a steep, never-ending journey. Unfortunately, a criminal conviction makes securing American citizenship all the more difficult. Depending on the severity of the sentence and when the conviction took place, criminal charges can permanently bar undocumented immigrants from obtaining citizenship.

I​f you or someone you love is an undocumented immigrant vying for citizenship, read below to learn more about how felony convictions can affect the naturalization process.

Permanent Bars and Aggravated Felonies

I​n the early and mid-20th century, an aggravated felony conviction didn’t necessarily prevent immigrants from achieving citizenship. However, that all changed in 1996 when Congress expanded aggravated felony into the immigration sect.

Now, if an applicant has an aggravated felony conviction from November 29, 1990, and on, they are permanently barred from establishing they are of good moral character necessary for the naturalization process.

This means that no matter how much time passes, how much money is spent, or how much an applicant proves they are of good moral character with other documentation, they legally can never become a United States citizen.

W​hat Counts as an Aggravated Felony?

T​here’s a long list of crimes that count as aggravated felonies, ranging from severe crimes like homicide to more minor offenses involving theft. 

Aggravated felonies include cases of sexual abuse against a minor, underage pornography, drug or weapons trafficking, rape, and select fraud cases (if it exceeds a specific amount).

A general rule of thumb is if the crime is violent, it’s likely an aggravated felony. Some aggravated felonies only become such if a sentence of a year or more is imposed. Keep in mind that what matters is that the sentence ordered is one year or more. It does not matter whether the sentence was suspended.

Still, deciphering whether or not a conviction counts as an aggravated felony can become confusing because aggravated felonies in the context of immigration can go beyond felonies under state laws, so you should contact a lawyer to learn if a charge counts as an aggravated felony.  Some crimes are aggravated felonies for immigration purposes even if a sentence of a year or more was not imposed and even if a state classifies the crime as a misdemeanor.

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Temporary Bars

Occasionally, a person will be charged with a crime that results in a temporary bar to becoming a U.S. citizen.

In this case, the residency requirement for citizenship restarts from the beginning, starting on the date that the defendant committed the crime. Usually, the applicant must wait five years after the date of the crime to apply as the applicant is required to establish a good moral character for the five years preceding their citizenship application, or three years in the case of an applicant who is applying for citizenship on the basis of having obtained their residency through marriage to a U.S. citizen. 

Crimes like prostitution, certain drug possession offenses, and more minor forms of fraud trigger a temporary bar. Additionally, if a defendant spends 180 days or more in jail, the crime automatically results in a temporary bar.

Can You Lose Your Citizenship if You Commit a Crime?

Once you earn citizenship, you enjoy all of the rights that any born-U.S. citizen has, including being immune from expulsion.

However, if immigration becomes aware that during the naturalization application process, an applicant lied about a material issue or failed to disclose material facts, USCIS can initiate denaturalization proceedings. This is the legal process where US citizens lose citizenship, also called being denaturalized.

Waiving Felony Consequences

If you’ve been convicted of a felony, not all hope is lost. If the immigrant applicant was convicted of an aggravated felony before November 29, 1990, they are not automatically barred from acquiring citizenship.

However, a conviction still does not reflect well on the applicant, and if the conviction and circumstances are severe, the applicant may still be barred from becoming a U.S. citizen as a matter of discretion.

Finally, immigration news and laws are constantly shifting, so always reach out for professional help to see how a lawyer can help move your case.

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