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How does 'moral character' affect a naturalization application?

One of the things that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services requires of applicants for naturalized citizenship is that the applicant be of “good moral character.” This will likely seem to be a rather vague and subjective requirement. Whose set of morals are the baseline? Couldn’t an applicant seem moral to one person, and immoral to another?

In fact, determining good moral character is a complex process, to judge by the size of the USCIS’s website on the subject. The agency broadly defines “good moral character” as character that equals the standards of an average citizen in the community in which the applicant resides. To be approved for naturalization, the applicant must show that he or she has been a person of good moral character, and will continue to be so up to the moment he or she takes the Oath of Allegiance.

This requirement goes back to the beginnings of the United States. The Naturalization Act of 1790 first introduced the rule that would-be citizens cannot be naturalized unless they demonstrate that they would be moral members of society.

Under the law, among the reasons to find that an applicant lacks sufficient moral character are:

  • Alcoholism
  • Prior convictions for crimes of “moral turpitude,” that is, crimes not purely political in nature
  • Illegal gambling
  • False testimony

As you can see, it is not necessary that the applicant have a criminal record, either in the U.S. or in his or her country of origin, to be found insufficiently moral by the U.S. government to be naturalized. Someone who has concerns about whether they will meet this requirement may wish to share those worries with their immigration attorney.

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