Recently, I was interviewing a new client who was interested in applying for her U.S. citizenship – “naturalization” – and during our naturalization intake review, she appeared to be surprised and confused when I began asking her about her criminal history. “Why, does that matter?” she asked and my immediate response was, “Yes! Yes it matters very much!”
When a foreign national applies for naturalization, the criminal investigation is in-depth and fraught with potential dangers. Before you are a citizen, any and every contact with law enforcement can affect your immigration status. Law enforcement includes local police and authorities, as well as the more traditional alphabet-soup of federal authorities such as Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Fraud Detection and National Security (FDNS), and even the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
During the naturalization process, you will be required to inform the government of any crimes in which you were involved. This can include arrests, as well as “convictions” of different levels –pleading guilty, nolo contendere, being found guilty, court supervision, and even probation before judgment may count. This is because in the immigration world, a “conviction” is much more than just a judge finding you guilty.
If you are “guilty” of a crime, even a simple misdemeanor, the consequences can be very serious. These consequences include having your citizenship application denied, being detained, deported, and barred from returning to the U.S. for years and even permanently. As you can see, your criminal record does matter!
You will have to inform the government of any applicable crimes, and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will verify your admissions (and omissions). Before your citizenship can be granted, you will be fingerprinted, and your biometrics will be processed through a very thorough background check process with the FBI and local authorities. It is important to review your entire criminal history with your immigration attorney because even older convictions may come back to haunt you – even “juvenile” offenses may be considered in some circumstances, such as if you received a blended sentence under state law, or if you were tried as an adult despite being a minor.
When you meet with your attorney, be sure to have both an accurate account of the entire crime and conviction, as well as all the documents relating to your arrest and trial. Your attorney can review your record and advise you on the best course of action and any possible consequences of applying for citizenship with a criminal record.
Immediately hire both an attorney qualified in criminal law and immigration law; an attorney experienced in both areas of law can work hard to prevent you from having a criminal record, and to help keep you out of detention, try to prevent deportation, and work to find a solution to protect your immigration status. Because the sentence you are given can have a dramatic impact on your future immigration options – even “small” convictions matter!