What are the requirements to become a U.S. citizen through naturalization?
One of the key requirements for U.S. citizenship through naturalization is to show good moral character. That means behaving in an acceptable manner, no crimes in the previous five years and no lying during the naturalization interview.
It has recently become clear that the question of moral character covers any ties to marijuana — even in states where it has been decriminalized.
Applications for U.S. citizenship can be denied based on a link to marijuana, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has clarified.
The agency recently issued a new guidance in its Policy Manual warning of “immigration consequences” for green card holders found to be cultivating, possessing or distributing marijuana because they may be judged to lack good moral character.
Federal law classifies marijuana as an illegal substance, and violations “are generally a bar to establishing good moral character for naturalization, even where that conduct would not be an offense under state law,” USCIS noted in a news alert.
About two-thirds of U.S. states allow medical uses of marijuana, and 10 have legalized its recreational use. But federal laws classify it as “as a Schedule I controlled substance whose manufacture (which includes production, such as planting, cultivation, growing, or harvesting), distribution, dispensing, or possession may lead to immigration consequences,” the USCIS memo noted.
The policy clarification came shortly after officials in Colorado warned state residents that working for marijuana growers or dispensaries could put at risk their U.S. citizenship applications. Several industry workers who are legal immigrants have been denied citizenship even though the application for naturalization, Form N-400, asks only about criminal record, not marijuana involvement.
Although the new guidance does not offer specific details, the online publication Marijuana Moment noted that current policy “does provide an exception for a single offense of simple possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana.”
The USCIS clarification reflects the Trump administration’s efforts to tighten policies and regulations in order to stop legal immigration. As a result, the legal immigration process has become far more rigorous.
Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute, believes the new policy could raise fears among legal U.S. residents who want to apply for citizenship.
“Whether or not it has a real impact is whether adjudicators decide to ask about it,” Gelatt told the Associated Press, referring to the USCIS adjudicators who rule on citizenship applications during the naturalization test.
USCIS says that as a federal agency, as long as marijuana remains illegal under federal law, it cannot can’t grant special consideration to immigrants whose marijuana activities may be decriminalized under state or local law.
“U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is required to adjudicate cases based on federal law. Individuals who commit federal controlled substance violations face potential immigration consequences under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), which applies to all foreign nationals regardless of the state or jurisdiction in which they reside,” said USCIS spokeswoman Jessica Collins in a statement.
A USCIS list of conducts that point to a lack of good moral character includes the following:
▪ Drunk driving or being drunk on a regular basis
▪ Illegal gambling
▪ Lying to gain immigration benefits
▪ Failing to pay court-ordered child support or alimony
▪ Persecuting someone because of race, religion, national origin, political opinion, or social group
USCIS clarifies that a person who is denied citizenship based on lack of good moral character, is not automatically removable. However, if an individual is considered deportable, USCIS or ICE may issue a Notice to Appear (NTA) — a document that normally marks the start of deportation procedures — in accordance with Department of Homeland Security policy.
Daniel Shoer Roth is a journalist covering immigration issues who does not offer legal advice or individual assistance to applicants. Follow him on Twitter @DanielShoerRoth.
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