On December 13, 2019, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) published new Good Moral Character (GMC) guidelines for its Immigration Services Officers (ISO). Among other adjudications, ISOs make decisions on the Form N-400, Application for Naturalization (Naturalization Application), by which foreign nationals seek citizenship in the United States.
“Good Moral Character” is a phrase used in the Immigration and Nationality Act to cover the conduct of foreign nationals while present in the United States. It is a statutory provision and applicants for citizenship must establish that they have the requisite Good Moral Character (GMC) to become citizens. While a statutory provision, USCIS has some latitude in deciding what specific acts constitute evidence that a foreign national lacks the requisite GMC. For example, during the whole of my 23-year career, domestic abuse and child abuse were considered acts which demonstrated a citizenship applicant lacked the good moral character to become a United States Citizen.
The December 13, 2019 change provides examples of conduct which demonstrates a lack of good moral character, including: bail jumping, bank fraud, conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance, failure to file or pay taxes, false claim to U.S. citizenship, falsification of records, forgery uttering, insurance fraud, obstruction of justice, sexual assault, Social Security fraud, unlawful harassment, unlawful registration to vote, unlawful voting, and violation of a U.S. embargo. This is not an exclusive list and I think it important to note that much of what is on the list has long been considered evidence that a Naturalization Applicant lacks good moral character. Conduct may bar someone from becoming a citizen which falls outside of the list but having a list permits ISOs to more easily and readily resolve the Naturalization Application in front of them and I suspect that is the point of the publication.
As a general rule, a citizenship applicant has to demonstrate GMC for five years prior to taking the Oath of Allegiance to become a citizen. There are exceptions to this but the five-year period is the applicable standard for most filings. The memo (cited above) properly notes that “USCIS officers must continue to perform a case-by-case analysis to determine whether an act is unlawful and adversely reflects on an applicant’s good moral character.” For applicants with records which potentially reflect badly on their good moral character, their Naturalization interview is not the ideal first time to have looked at the issues or sought legal advice. If any doubts exist, it is advisable to seek legal counsel in filing. In most cases, a little bit of documentation and clarification can save an applicant considerable time and money in filing for U.S. Citizenship.