DUI and US Citizenship: Good Moral Character Standards

DUI and US Citizenship: Good Moral Character StandardsAlthough most immigration attorneys would agree that a single DUI, by itself, should not result in a finding of lack of good moral character in connection with a citizenship application, an examination of US immigration statues, regulations, and guidelines will not reveal any standard definition for good moral character. While Immigration & Nationality Act (INA) section 101(f) contains a list of factors that would preclude a finding of good moral character, it doesn’t mean that other negative attributes cannot torpedo a naturalization case.

In Ragoonanan v. USCIS, a 2007 US district court case out of Minnesota, an applicant’s motion for summary judgment was granted and the Court declared him to possess good moral character over the objection of immigration officials. Immigration officials initially denied his naturalization application for failure to show good moral character for the required five years prior to filing. The applicant was a citizen of Trinidad who came to the US in lawful permanent resident status in 1996. At the time of the decision, his wife and child lived in Trinidad and were waiting on his citizenship so that they could move here to be with him. The applicant had worked for Honeywell since 1998, had a clean employment record, and was a member of the Teamster’s union. Further, he owned rental property and filed his tax returns as required.

In 2005, he was arrested for DUI after driving the wrong way down a Minnesota street, blowing a .18 on the breathalyser (more than double the legal limit). He was charged with a fourth-degree DWI (driving while intoxicated) misdemeanor and spend one night in jail. Subsequent to his arrest, the applicant voluntarily participated in a substance abuse inventory that categorized him as having “abusive episodic” tendencies with a low probability of having a substance abuse disorder. He completed six hours of an alcohol, drug and DUI awareness course and pled guilty to the DWI. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail and a $1000 fine (later reduced), and also had to attend a victim impact panel.

Ragoonanan fulfilled all of the DUI-related requirements and filed for citizenship in 2006; he disclosed the conviction as required by law. He attributed the DUI to the stress of his mother’s illness and the prolonged separation from his wife and daughter. USCIS denied his application, finding that the DUI, combined with the fact that he was on probation during his five year moral character period, precluded him from establishing that he the good moral character required of a US citizenship applicant. It was stressed that, by driving under the influence, he had posed a threat to the property, safety and welfare of others. In denying his request for reconsideration, it was determined that enough time had not elapsed since the incident to show the requisite reform.

The Court held that one DUI conviction that results in a year of probation does not bar a good moral character finding. Although Congress declared that habitual drunkards could not show good moral character, they did not include drunk drivers in that prohibition.

However, what if the applicant has more than one DUI? In Yaqub v. Gonzalez, the foreign national arrived in the US in 1991, received BS and MBA degrees, was involved in charitable activities and paid his taxes. In 1991 he was arrested on a minor assault charge stemming from a dispute with a neighbor. In 1993, while a university student, he was arrested for public intoxication with friends after an altercation with a restaurant manager. In 2001, he was arrested for DUI and pled guilty to reckless operation of a motor vehicle; his license was suspended for six months. In 2002, he applied for naturalization and had his interview in December of 2003. However, earlier in 2003 he was again arrested for DUI and was sentenced to 90 days in jail. At the time of his application, he was married to a citizen of Pakistan and they were expecting their first child. His application was denied in September 2004 based on a lack of good moral character.
In overturning the immigration officer’s decision, the federal district court in Ohio disregarded the 1992 and 1993 convictions, chalking them up to youthful indiscretions and emphasized the fact that the applicant admitted to his wrong doing and had provided evidence of rehabilitation and remorsefulness. The Court found that multiple DUI convictions, in and of themselves, do not preclude a finding of good moral character when balanced with positive contributions to the community, even if the incidents occur during the period of required good moral character. However, in Rico v. INS, a New York federal district court upheld denial of a naturalization application where the DUI conviction occurred in the five year moral character period and was one of a series of five DUI convictions over ten years.
Permanent residents who commit aggravated felonies after 1990 are permanently barred from naturalizing and are deportable. A simple, single DUI conviction will generally not rise to the level of an aggravated felony. However, an aggravated felony for immigration purposes is not easy to define. Courts, and the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), could conceivably find an aggravated felony classification for driving under the influence when coupled with aggravating circumstances such as death, bodily injury or driving on a suspended license or after a prior DUI.

In order to overcome negative moral character aspects of an immigration application, it is very important to show community involvement, substance abuse remission, and participation in a substance abuse rehabilitation program or AA. If a negative issue arose recently, it might be wise to establish rehabilitation or reform prior to applying for citizenship.

Millie Anne Cavanaugh, Esq. is a Los Angeles immigration attorney and former insurance defense attorney. She is licensed to practice law in California and Massachusetts. The information contained herein is provided for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as a solicitation for your business or as legal advice on any subject matter. You should not act or refrain from acting on the basis of this information without seeking independent legal advice.

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