Grounds for Deportation: Crimes of Moral Turpitude

By Ilona Bray, J.D., University of Washington Law School
Any foreign national in the United States can be removed from the country if they do something that fits within U.S. immigration law's "grounds of deportability." There are numerous grounds for deportation set out in the Immigration and Nationality Act (I.N.A.), including criminal grounds. Certain crimes involving moral turpitude are among these.

Any foreign national in the United States can be removed from the country if he or she does something that fits within U.S. immigration law's "grounds of deportability." There are numerous grounds for deportation set out in the Immigration and Nationality Act (I.N.A., at Section 237), including criminal grounds. Certain crimes involving moral turpitude (CIMTs) are among these.

Being Inadmissible Is Different Than Being Deportable

Foreign nationals who have not yet been admitted to the United States with a visa or green card are subject to the "grounds of inadmissibility." This is a separate list within U.S. immigration law, containing grounds for barring U.S. entry or for denying a visa or green card.

It's only foreign nationals (such as visa and green card holders) who have already been admitted to the United States who are subject to removal on grounds of deportability. These different distinctions are set up in the I.N.A. and in the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRAIRA).

What Are Crimes Involving Moral Turpitude?

Whether a crime involves moral turpitude is not specifically defined by the I.N.A., and no one will ever find "Crime of moral turpitude" written in their police record. The definition has been left to U.S. courts to determine in individual cases. Even this has not led to any comprehensive list, because crimes are defined slightly differently within every state's laws, and the facts of individual cases may alter the analysis.

An oft-repeated legal standard says that moral turpitude “refers generally to conduct that shocks the public conscience as being inherently base, vile, or depraved, contrary to the rules of morality and the duties owed between man and man, either one’s fellow man or society in general.”‚Äč

Of course, many crimes are so serious that they will almost always be deemed CIMTs. And courts have developed the concept of "categorical" CIMTs, in which moral turpitude is viewed as part and parcel of any and all offenses that might have a “realistic probability” of being prosecuted under the criminal law in question.

Crimes of moral turpitude also usually require a willful criminal intent (or what the law calls "scienter").

As you can see, this is probably not an analysis that should be an attempted without an attorney. Broadly speaking, however, courts regularly find the following offenses to be CIMTs:

  • Crimes against the person, such as murder, voluntary or reckless manslaughter, aggravated battery, kidnapping, attempted murder, assault with intent to rob or kill or to commit abortion or rape, domestic violence, stalking, child abuse, child neglect, child abandonment, violation of a protection order, and repeated harassment or bodily injury.
  • Sexual offenses, such as rape (whether common law or statutory), adultery, bigamy, prostitution, lewdness, sodomy, gross indecency, and possession of child pornography.
  • Crimes against property, such as burglary (if the intended offense involves moral turpitude, since unlawful entry and remaining unlawfully on a property by themselves are not CIMTs), and breaking and entering to commit larceny.
  • Theft offenses, such as trafficking in counterfeit goods and receipt of stfolen property, which may be both a CIMT and an aggravated felony.
  • Crimes against the government, such as counterfeiting, perjury, willful tax evasion, bribery (or attempted bribery), using the mail to defraud, misprision of a felony, harboring a fugitive, conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States, making false statements to avoid being drafted, and draft evasion
  • Crimes involving fraud, whether against government or individuals, except for false statements not amounting to perjury. Examples include forgery, making false statements to obtain a U.S. passport or U.S. naturalized citizenship, a driver's license, or a firearm; passing bad checks; false representation of a Social Security Number; money laundering; and conspiracy to affect a public market in securities.

And don't forget that, even if you don't see a crime on the above list, it might not only still be a crime of moral turpitude, but might be among the crimes that is separately listed as a ground of deportability under the I.N.A. (such as drug abuse or other controlled substance violations, or failure to register as a sex offender).

When Will a Crime of Moral Turpitude Make Someone Deportable?

The I.N.A. makes removable a non-citizen who has been either:

  • convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude (CIMT) that was committed within five years after the date of admission to the U.S. and resulted in a sentence of imprisonment for at least one year, or
  • convicted of two CIMTs not arising out of a single scheme of criminal misconduct, with neither the time of commission of the offense nor the sentence imposed being relevant.

A non-citizen who has been convicted of a single misdemeanor that's classifiable as a petty offense is not removable, so long as the actual sentence that was imposed was six months or less, and the maximum sentence that could have been imposed is no more than one year.

Questions for Your Attorney

If you are a foreign national who has been convicted of any crime, you may need not one, but two attorneys working with you. That's because very few attorneys specialize in both criminal and immigration law. You'll want the criminal lawyer to suggest the lowest-level possible crimes that you could plea bargain or face trial for; and the immigration lawyer to analyze the implications of each possibility in terms of your immigration status and deportability.

Here some possible questions to ask your immigration law attorney:

  • I've been accused of a crime. What can I do to prevent a conviction that falls within the definition of moral turpitude or that will otherwise be cause for my removal from the U.S.?
  • My public defender is urging me to plead guilty and avoid jail time. But will my guilty plea get me deported?
  • I've been convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude. Will I be automatically removed from the United States? Is there a chance that I can stay in the United States even though I have a conviction?
  • Is it possible to have a crime removed from my record so as to protect my immigration status?

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