By Attorneys Gregory J. Boult & Nancy E. Miller
Applying for naturalization (citizenship) is the final step in the immigration process for many immigrants. While the general requirements to establish eligibility for naturalization appear straight-forward, they often are not. Many naturalization applicants are surprised when their applications are denied. The immigration laws and regulations which control eligibility for naturalization are littered with traps and pitfalls which the unsuspecting applicant may not recognize until it is too late.
All applicants for naturalization must establish that they are persons of good moral character during a prescribed period of time prior to submitting their applications (one, three or five years, depending on what grounds one is applying under). While the immigration laws itemize specific acts which preclude an applicant from establishing good moral character, this list is not exclusive – there are many other acts which may hinder or prevent a good moral character finding. In addition, while good moral character must be established for a prescribed period of time prior to submitting an application, acts outside of the prescribed period can be considered in determining an applicant’s good moral character.
Many acts that one might not think of as evidencing bad moral character may nevertheless be considered in making a good moral character determination. One such act is the willful failure to pay support for dependents. For instance, it is extremely difficult to establish good moral character when one is not complying with a child support order. Even the failure to support a dependent without an underlying court order can prove problematic. Another act, which is often a surprise to many applicants, is engaging in an extramarital affair which tended to destroy an existing marriage. This issue often arises when an applicant had a child outside of a prior marriage. Other acts which may result in the delay or the denial of an application for naturalization include the submission of fraudulent or improperly prepared income tax returns. Tax returns often come under scrutiny because individuals file under the incorrect category, claim ineligible dependents, or fail to report all of their earnings. In some instances, even the receipt of public assistance can cause the delay or denial of an application for naturalization.
Criminal convictions are often an issue in establishing an applicant’s good moral character. While a disqualifying criminal conviction in the prescribed period of good moral character will automatically render an individual ineligible for naturalization, a disqualifying criminal offense outside of the prescribed period can cause an application for naturalization to be denied. The government is afforded broad discretion to examine otherwise non-disqualifying criminal convictions outside the prescribed period to determine if the underlying facts warrant a favorable finding of good moral character. Therefore, as a result, an analysis of good moral character extends far beyond the prescribed period. These issues may not result in an automatic denial but they must be adequately explained.
Other pitfalls and traps also lurk for the unsuspecting applicant. One common example is the Selective Service requirement which directs all male citizens and lawful permanent residents of the United States who are between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six to register with the government. Unfortunately, many lawful permanent residents fail to register. As a result, many of these individuals are compelled to wait until five years after they turn twenty-six before they are eligible to apply for naturalization. Others may face the daunting, although not impossible, task of legally justifying their failure to register.
While certain acts may automatically disqualify an individual from eligibility for naturalization, the government’s very broad discretion spans many acts which most applicants never realize could negatively affect their applications. In order to insure that no unnecessary delays, or a denial, are encountered, each prospective applicant should obtain a clear and thorough understanding of not only the process of applying for naturalization, but also the potential pitfalls and traps which must be avoided to insure the timely success of their application. An experienced and knowledgeable immigration attorney will advise an individual of his or her eligibility for naturalization, identify the prospective pitfalls and traps in the applicant’s case, and determine how to effectively overcome these negative aspects of the case. Of course, the experienced attorney also represents the applicant through all stages of the naturalization process to ensure that his or her legal rights are protected and preserved. While the general requirements to establish eligibility for naturalization may appear straight-forward, prospective applicants must be aware that ‘the devil is in the detail.