Applying for Green Card or US citizenship with a criminal record

Applying for a green card or US citizenship is hard enough, add into the equation the fact that you have a criminal record, and things can be much more difficult. However, you can still apply and it is possible for your immigration forms to go through if you spend some time preparing for the interview and filling out all of the application paperwork correctly and completely. Consulting with an attorney can make it much easier, and they can help you understand immigration law and how it affects your particular situation. Follow this expert advice to help you apply for US citizenship or a green card with as much ease as possible.


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  • consult an attorney
  • get a complete history
  • be completely honest
  • bring all relevant documents to your interview
  • show remorse and rehabilitation

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  • assume an arrest or conviction won’t be a problem
  • assume you will have an opportunity to explain what happened
  • apply if you have a conviction for drugs, fraud, theft, or a serious crime
  • assume a pardon, expungement, or sealed record will protect you

Camille Mackler‘s recommendation to ExpertBeacon readers: Do

Do consult an attorney

Even minor criminal convictions can have long-lasting immigration consequences. When possible, you should consult with an experienced attorney before taking a plea deal in criminal court. After the fact, however, you should consult with an attorney who can determine what, if any, the consequences of your conviction might be. Remember, even if the crime was a misdemeanor, or if you spent no time in jail, immigration laws may classify your conviction differently, and you could lose your status and be placed in deportation proceedings as a result.

Do get a complete history

If you have know you have a criminal record, you should obtain a copy of it before filing any new application with immigration. You can ask for a certificate of good conduct from the police department of each place you have lived since turning 16. You can also fill out a fingerprint card at your local police precinct and send it to the FBI to obtain a copy of your FBI criminal record. This will show arrests in all fifty states, including any arrests by immigration if you had issues with them in the past.

Do be completely honest

A criminal conviction doesn’t go away just because you don’t talk about it. All immigration forms ask if you’ve ever been arrested. If you lie on the application and they found out, not only are you potentially barred from obtaining a green card or citizenship, you are also committing fraud to obtain an immigration benefit. At best, you will be denied. At worst, you will be placed in deportation proceedings.

Do bring all relevant documents to your interview

When you apply for any immigration benefit, the first step once USCIS receives your application is to schedule an appointment to take your fingerprints. Your prints are then sent to local, national, and international databases to see if you have any prior arrests. When you go to your interview, any criminal conviction will show up in your records, and the officer will want to see the documentary proof. Obtain a criminal disposition from the court where you were prosecuted for each arrest (even if the case was dismissed).

Do show remorse and rehabilitation

Citizenship applications must be approved if your meet all the requirements, but green card applications do not. Even if you meet all the requirements for a green card, you can still be denied if the office does not believe you deserve a favorable exercise of discretion. For this reason, when questioned about your arrest, you should show remorse. Do not try to blame it on someone else, or state that it wasn’t your fault. Accept responsibility and assure the officer that you will never make the same mistake again (and mean it). If your arrest involved drugs or alcohol, consider attending a treatment or some classes to show that you are taking the issue seriously and do not intend to make the same mistake again.

Camille Mackler‘s professional advice to ExpertBeacon readers: Don't

Do not assume an arrest or conviction won’t be a problem

Immigration laws punish even minor criminal convictions far more harshly than most criminal laws do. It is not uncommon for someone who spent less than a year in jail to find themselves deported and forever exiled from the United States (and their friends and family who remain there). If you have a criminal attorney, spend the money to at least have a consultation with an experienced attorney. They will be able to tell you whether your conviction is a cause for concern.

Do not assume you will have an opportunity to explain what happened

Immigration laws do not consider the backstory to any arrest. The crime you plead to or were found guilty of is what will determine the consequences of the arrest. For example, if you were unknowingly holding drugs for your friend when you were both arrested, and you plead guilty to possession with intent to sell of a controlled substance because that’s what your attorney assured you was what would get you out of jail fastest, you now have a drug conviction on your record. The fact that you did not know, and did not intend to possess, much less sell, drugs, is irrelevant for immigration purposes.

Do not apply if you have a conviction for drugs, fraud, theft, or a serious crime

Drug, fraud, theft of serious crimes such as murder, rape, kidnapping, burglary, etc. are always a problem in immigration, and can rarely be excused. If you have any major conviction, or if you were sentenced to over a year in prison (even if part or the entire sentence was spent on probation and not in jail), do not bring yourself to the attention of immigration authorities. Consult an attorney instead to see what, if any, your options might be.

Do not assume a pardon, expungement, or sealed record will protect you

Pardons and expungements have no impact on immigration laws. If you were arrested, the consequences will still apply, even if the conviction was later pardoned or expunged. Additionally, if a conviction is sealed, immigration can still require you to disclose the facts of your arrest and use them against you.


Citizenship applicants must remember that when having a criminal record, everything thing is more difficult. But with due diligence and preparation, you can apply for citizenship and maximize the possibility of your application being accepted. Show remorse and rehabilitation, contact an experience attorney, and don’t assume everything is going to be fine. It will take some work on your part, but you can do it.

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