U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) recently adopted new policy guidance altering the way immigration officers evaluate criminal sentences and make good moral character determinations. These changes may impact a foreign national’s eligibility for certain immigration benefits, including admissibility as a visa holder, permanent resident, or naturalized citizen.

USCIS’s recent policy guidance changes include the following:

Post-Sentencing Charges

What changed?

USCIS incorporated into policy Attorney General William Barr’s recent decision in Matter of Thomas and Thompson that, for immigration purposes, the relevant term of imprisonment or sentence for a criminal act will generally be the original sentence imposed by a state court.

What’s the impact?

Where a state court order subsequently modifies, clarifies, or vacates the original sentence, the new term of imprisonment or sentence will only be relevant for immigration purposes if the change was due to a procedural or substantive defect in the underlying criminal proceeding. If such a change was based on other considerations—such as rehabilitation or the avoidance of immigration consequences—the original sentence will still be considered for purposes of immigration decisions.

DUI Convictions

What changed?

USCIS also incorporated into policy the attorney general’s decision in Matter of Castillo-Perez that two or more convictions for driving under the influence (DUI) during the relevant lookback period may affect a foreign national’s good moral character determination.

What’s the impact?

Convictions for multiple DUIs will likely prompt an assessment by USCIS to determine whether the foreign national is a “habitual drunkard,” which would statutorily preclude him or her from possessing good moral character under the immigration regulations. Further, evidence of rehabilitation subsequent to two or more DUI convictions is insufficient on its own to rebut the presumption that a foreign national lacks the required showing of good moral character. Rather, the foreign national must provide evidence that good moral character was sustained for the entire lookback period, even at the time of the DUI convictions.

Conditional Bars for Unlawful Acts

What changed?

USCIS expanded its policy guidance to provide examples of unlawful acts that may prevent a foreign national from meeting the good moral character requirement for certain immigration benefits. The agency also emphasized the discretion of immigration officers to determine if the commission of an unlawful act reflects negatively on a foreign national’s moral character, and whether there were any extenuating circumstances involved.

What’s the impact?

Immigration officers may look to an expanded list of unlawful acts recognized as a bar to good moral character, including but not limited to:

  • failure to pay or file taxes;
  • false claim to U.S. citizenship;
  • falsification of records;
  • unlawful registration to vote; and
  • unlawful voting.