good moral character

The path to U.S. naturalization is increasingly complex and filled with pitfalls; and many of them seem hopelessly murky as well. One recent change has been to the imposingly and confusingly named Title 8 Chapter 1 Subchapter C Part 316 section 316.10 “Good Moral Character.” It states that an applicant for naturalization must be a person of “good moral character”. But what is that?

8 CFR 316.10 is a legal document, and hard for lay readers to understand, but the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has provided a more readable format, available online.

What Is “Moral Character?” How Do They Know?

When USCIS speaks of “moral character”, they are not speaking of an individual being a generally good or nice person. “Moral character” actually means “law-abiding”. The burden of proof that an immigrant is and has been “law-abiding” rests on the immigrant. There are several categories of laws that will permanently bar someone from entering the U.S.

  • An individual who has been convicted of murder in another country is permanently barred from establishing “good moral character” necessary for immigration.
  • Torture, genocide, Nazi persecutions, violations of religious freedoms. These violations of the Hague Conventions, Geneva Conventions, and other international human rights conventions, will permanently bar an individual from entry into the U.S.
  • Aggravated Felonies. This last category is the most expansive, and the one with the largest number of changes as of January, 2020. Any individual charged with an aggravated felony after November 29, 1990 cannot establish “good moral character.”

What About Other Crimes?

The USCIS acknowledges that there are lesser offenses that many people may commit; and these are not absolute bars to admission to the U.S. Some of these are:

  • Crimes of “moral turpitude”. According to the USCIS manual, “moral turpitude “refers generally to conduct that shocks the public conscience as being inherently base, vile, or depraved, contrary to the rules of morality and the duties owed between man and man, either one’s fellow man or society in general.” These crimes usually involve wanton recklessness or fraud.
  • Prostitution, controlled substance violations, polygamy, adultery. These may be bars to establishing good moral character, unless extenuating circumstances can be established.
  • Habitual drunkenness, multiple DUIs.

But What If It Wasn’t My Fault?

Most people relocate to America because conditions are better here than in their home country. The conditional bars to establishing good moral character acknowledge this with an exception for “purely political” arrests or incarcerations. An applicant must be able to show that political, religious, or racial motivations on the part of the government lay behind their arrests and convictions, and the exemptions are limited to:

  • Crimes of moral turpitude;
  • Conviction of two or more offenses with a combined sentence of five or more years;
  • Incarceration for a period of over 180 days.

For instance, an individual arrested in a sweep of religious minorities under a repressive regime, on trumped-up charges of sleeping with a political rival’s wife, or for demonstrating against the mistreatment of ethnic minorities in a nation that lacks protections for demonstrators, might be able to have this bar exempted.

But What Should I Do?

The burden is on the immigrant to show he or she was never arrested or convicted; an admittedly difficult bar, as it requires the individual to prove a negative. Modernly, immigrants should be aware that social media can be seen by everyone, and a casual comment, misunderstood statement, or similar name can lead to questions that cannot be answered.

Just as important, anyone who has an uncertain background must be prepared to answer any questions. If they are seeking permanent residence, they should seek legal advice early, and determine what is and is not likely to be an issue with USCIS.

Although the goal of the “good moral character” requirement is to ensure the new citizen measures up to the standards of their American community, they are weighed against the standards of the community of the nation they have left. Therefore, although adultery is a late-night comedian’s joke in the U.S., it can be a capital offense in some countries; and it is those judicial systems that the immigrant will be held to when answering the questions of the Immigration official.

Call Our Team!

Immigration Law Group will review your past history, locate any trouble spots, and help you determine the best way to negotiate the labyrinth of “good moral character” and come safely out the other side. Give us a call today!