Immigration And Arrest: When Will A Criminal Conviction Cost You Your Green Card?

If you're an immigrant, an arrest and conviction for even a small crime can derail your application for a green card. Even if you have a green card already, certain crimes can still lead to deportation. Here's what can get you into serious trouble with immigration (and what you can do about it).

Crimes Of Moral Turpitude And Immigration Law

Generally speaking, any conduct that can be considered a "crime of moral turpitude" can result in your deportation or the denial of a green card. However, there's no specific definition of that term—what counts as a crime of moral turpitude can vary according to the circumstances of the situation (and the judge hearing the case).

Crimes of moral turpitude are usually understood to be those that require a certain vileness of character in order to commit them. Murder, kidnapping, incest, rape, violent assaults, drug crimes and fraud are all considered crimes of moral turpitude. However, convictions for theft, prostitution, and writing bad checks could also be considered crimes of moral turpitude, depending on how the individual judge interprets the law. 

Vague Definitions Of The Law And Room For Exceptions

When an immigrant is convicted of a crime, the language of the laws used in that conviction are examined to determine if the crime seems to meet the Board of Immigration's definition of a "crime of moral turpitude" or not. At one time, the courts could consider the circumstances of the case: for example, whether or not you acted in self-defense even though you were ultimately convicted of manslaughter. However, as of 2015, that rule has changed, which makes it harder for lawyers to successfully argue for exceptions for their clients.

However, in many cases you can apply for a waiver for a crime of moral turpitude. A waiver permits you to either get or retain your green card, despite your conviction. In order to qualify, you must:

  • never have been convicted of an aggravated felony
  • not be a threat to national security
  • have lived in the U.S. for seven years, without a break
  • demonstrate that you deserve a second chance

In some cases, it may be possible to get the waiver based on the fact that your deportation would cause extreme hardship to your spouse, parent, or child if that person is a U.S. citizen.

Another possible waiver involves the "petty offense" exception. A petty offense could include something like shoplifting, driving without a license, or simple assault (like a fistfight). In order to qualify for this waiver, the maximum penalty possible for the crime has to be no more than 1 year of jail time, and you personally can't have been sentenced to more than 6 months.

Whether you've already been convicted or are still facing trial, talk to an immigration attorney about the chances of getting a waiver so that you can get or keep your green card. In particular, if you haven't already been convicted, speak to an immigration attorney like Kriezelman Burton & Associates before you consider any sort of plea deal offered by the prosecution. Since the courts have to examine the language of the law so closely, you don't want to plead guilty to something that will automatically disqualify you from a waiver.