Thursday, June 17, 2010

Commandment #3 of Applying for Naturalization: Thou Shall Not Have More Than One Spouse at a Time

On our last post we discussed the definition of good moral character and how it is one of several requirements an applicant must meet before becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen. As noted earlier, what constitutes good moral character is not clearly defined by statute, although it has been interpreted by case law to mean behavior that meets the moral standard of the average citizen in the applicant’s community.

There are various factors that will affect a determination of good moral character. Section 101(f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) has a list of factors that would prevent a person from showing good moral character. One factor that can affect a good moral character determination includes adultery and polygamy.

I know it has been said that King Solomon had 700 wives, but let’s face it, you and I are no King Solomon. This commandment of “one-spouse-at-a-time” should be self explanatory, but in my years practicing immigration law, I have encountered several cases where the applicant had been married to more than one person at a time, and didn’t even realize it. On a couple of other cases, the person thought they were married, when in fact they were not.

Some months ago I had a client that applied for naturalization. On the application he had indicated that he was married. By the time of the interview the “marriage certificate” was finally produced, and to everyone’s surprise, he was not actually married. As with many other states, Virginia first issues a 60-day marriage license to applicants. During those 60 days, the applicant takes the marriage license and presents it to the celebrant who performs the marriage ceremony. The marriage ceremony by an authorized celebrant is a necessary step for the marriage to be legally binding. The minister or other person officiating the marriage completes and signs the Marriage Register and then forwards it to the clerk of the court who issued the license. This individual never had a marriage ceremony performed by an authorized minister, and therefore never had a legally binding marriage.  They went to the courthouse, obtained a license, and had a small house party to celebrate their "marriage" thinking that nothing else had to be done.

We’ve also encountered some people that were under the genuine, albeit incorrect, impression that because they were married in their home country – and not in the United States – that their marriage back home somehow didn’t count or was not valid, and therefore they were “single”. So they find someone else, and decide to remarry, without obtaining a divorce from their home country. In other cases, the person hires an attorney in their home country to file a divorce, the divorce finally goes through, or so they think, he or she remarries in the United States, just to find out later on that their divorce did not in fact go through as the attorney had told them because of a legal technicality (it wasn’t properly filed, the appropriate signatures or seals were missing, the appropriate fees were not paid to the government office, etc).

While it is true that there is a great deal of ambiguity surrounding the meaning of the term ‘Good Moral Character’ in the context of obtaining U.S. citizenship by naturalization, there are some crimes and bad acts that may prevent one from obtaining U.S. citizenship – polygamy is one of them for sure. The moral of the story is that if you have a spouse – keep your spouse (your children will thank you for it). If you don’t keep your spouse, make sure your divorce is final. If you decide to re-marry, keep your divorce certificate because you might need it for your interview.

Stayed tuned for Commandment #4: Thou Shall Feed Your Children (wherever they are).

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Commandment #2 of Applying for Naturalization: Thou Shall Not Pretend Never Have Been in the Big House (Unless You Truly Haven’t)

There are several requirements an applicant must meet before becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen. One of these requirements is that the applicant must be a person of “good moral character”. What constitutes good moral character is not clearly defined by statute, although it has been interpreted by case law to mean behavior that meets the moral standard of the average citizen in the applicant’s community.

There are various factors that will affect a determination of good moral character. Section 101(f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) has a list of factors that would prevent a person from showing good moral character. Factors that affect this determination include: refusing to pay court-ordered child support; failing to file or to pay income taxes; neglecting to register for Selective Service (if you are required to do so); lying to obtain an immigration benefit; driving drunk or habitual drunkenness; adultery; and several other grounds, including being arrested or convicted for any criminal offense whether in or outside of the United States. Although not every arrest or conviction renders the applicant ineligible to apply for U.S. citizenship, an applicant who has ever been involved in any criminal proceeding should consult with an experienced immigration attorney before submitting an application with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

All arrests and convictions should be analyzed by an experienced immigration lawyer to determine whether they render the applicant ineligible to apply or whether the applicant’s criminal history would not only result in the denial of the application, but possibly the initiation of deportation proceedings. If the applicant elects to move forward with the application, all arrests and convictions should be disclosed – even if the records have been expunged

It is very important to highlight that the definition of what exactly constitutes a conviction is different for immigration purposes. To read the immigration definition of what constitutes a conviction INA § 101(a)(48) should be consulted. A person might not have a conviction for state purposes or even have had the case expunged, and still have a conviction for immigration purposes. The fact that the offense might have occurred many years ago is irrelevant for removal purposes. For example, a Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR) is subject to removal from the United States for a violation of relevant immigration laws, regardless of the length of residency or the age at which it was attained. Thus, an individual who immigrated to the United States when he was a couple of months old who is now convicted of a crime at age 65 can be removed, depending on the nature of the conviction.

There are many important reasons why clients should not withhold important information from their attorneys. In my years working as an immigration attorney I have encountered people that, for one reason or another, have decided to hide important information that would have avoided problems in the future. Most people that fit this category are well-intentioned people that are extremely embarrassed by their past. Of course, there are some that think (or hope) that by not disclosing an arrest, that somehow no one will realize it. Hopefully the client feels comfortable enough with their attorney to confide in them very personal details about their past, especially when they have had any contact with the criminal justice system. The attorney also plays an important role in extracting some of this information and bringing the issue to the floor so an open and honest conversation can follow. It’s important that the applicant understand that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will require fingerprints to be taken as part of the application process.

When in doubt, we have clients complete an FBI Identification Record, often referred to as a Criminal History Record or Rap Sheet. The FBI Rap Sheet is a listing of certain information taken from fingerprint submissions retained by the FBI in connection with arrests and, in some instances, federal employment, naturalization, or military service. Once submitted, the results normally arrive within 30-60 days.

As most of our readers know, criminal convictions can have very serious consequences in an immigration matter. We recently posted an entry about the case of a Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR) who was convicted of Petit Larceny in Virginia and later placed in deportation proceedings. We encourage our readers to read that entry to see the interplay between state and federal law as it relates to the removability of criminal non-citizens.  There are ways that criminal and immigration counsel can work together to achieve the best possible results that could minimize or prevent immigration consequences.

In all, the client’s interests are better served by having an open and honest conversation about these topics. Although momentarily uncomfortable for the client, being straightforward about their past can not only save them thousands of dollars in legal fees, but a lot of heartache for them and their family in the future.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Commandment #1 of Applying for Naturalization: Thou Shall Ensure Qualification (preferably before application)

Applicants for naturalization must make sure that they meet the minimum requirements before submitting their application with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). One must meet all of the requirements - not just some. The website for USCIS has a lot of helpful resources such as a Brief Guide with some basic requirements and a more comprehensive and detailed Naturalization Guide

An important note to highlight is that in the best of cases the only consequence of having applied when the applicant was not eligible to, is that the applicant has lost some time and money.  This happens for example when the applicant does not meet one or more of the basic requirements. There are several other denial reasons however, mainly those that involve grounds of removability or inadmissibility, that will lead to the applicant being placed in removal proceedings.

In general, to be eligible for naturalization, the applicant must be at least 18 years old, be lawfully admitted for permanent residence, be a person of good moral character, have a basic command of the English language, and must also have a basic knowledge of U.S. History and Government. An applicant for naturalization must also show that he or she is attached to the principles of the Constitution of the United States, and will be required to take the Oath of Allegiance. The applicant must also have resided continuously in the U.S. for a period of five years following their lawful admission to permanent residence (three years if the applicant is the spouse of a U.S. citizen) and must be actually physically present in the U.S. for at least two and a half years for most applicants, one and a half years for spouses of U.S. citizens.

Keep in mind also that an absence from the U.S. that is too long will break the continuity of the applicant’s residence in the U.S. for naturalization purposes. It’s important for those frequent travelers to make sure that they review their travel dates carefully to make sure that they meet the minimum requirements. 

Stay tunned for Commandment #2: Thou Shall Not Pretend Never Have Been In The Big House (Unless You Truly Haven’t).