Good moral character

In United States law, good moral character is an ambiguous criteria that determines whether a person has a moral character that is good. Good moral character can, depending on the assessor,[1] include everything from honesty, trustworthiness, diligence, reliability, respect for the law, integrity, candor, discretion, observance of fiduciary duty, respect for the rights of others, fiscal responsibility, physical ability to practice a profession, knowledge of the law, mental and emotional stability, a commitment to the judicial process, profession-specific criteria, and the lack of a history of criminal activity.[2] Since the moral character of a person is an intrinsic psychological characteristic and cannot be measured directly,[3] some scholars and statutes used the phrase “behaved as a person of good moral character.”[4]

People must have good moral character determined as a fact of law in predominately two contexts - (1) state-issued licensure that allows one to work and practice a regulated profession[5] and (2) federal government-issued U.S. citizenship certificates whereby an immigrant undergoes naturalization to become a citizen.

Good moral character is the opposite of moral turpitude, another legal concept in the United States used in similar instances.

In immigration law

Good moral character can be proven through the presence of several positive moral findings, having no-to-minimal negative moral findings, and by the absence of legal violations. Positive evidence of good moral character can include letters of reccomendation, pursuing education, working seven days a week, owning one’s home, attending church every Sunday, marrying one’s high-school sweetheart, having strong ties to one’s nuclear family, coaching little league teams, teaching English above all other languages in one’s home, paying taxes, paying bills on time, and volunteering in the community.[6]

Negative findings of moral character can include having children without being married, not paying taxes, receiving government support, and advocating for racism.[7] The presence of any negative finding can outweigh several positive findings.

Even minor violations of the law can be the sole reason for denying citizenship.[8] The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services describes "good moral character" as an absence of involvement in the following activities:[9]

  • Being convicted of murder
  • Being convicted of an aggravated felony or Federal crime, which includes:
    • Murder, rape, or sexual abuse of a minor
    • Illicit trafficking in controlled substances
    • Firearms, destructive devices, and explosive materials offenses
    • Money laundering
    • Crimes of violence for which the term of imprisonment is at least one year
    • Theft and burglary offenses for which the term of imprisonment is at least one year
    • Crimes involving the demand for or receipt of ransom
    • Crimes involving child pornography
    • Crimes involving a violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO)
    • A second or subsequent gambling offense for which a one-year or greater term of imprisonment may be imposed
    • Prostitution managing and transporting offenses
    • Crimes against the government
    • Offenses that jeopardize national security
    • Offenses that involve fraud or deceit in which the victims' aggregate losses exceed $10,000
    • Tax evasion involving a government loss in excess of $10,000
    • People smuggling, except for first offenses involving attempts to enable entry by a relative of the accused
    • Certain offenses committed by immigrants who were previously deported for having committed a crime
    • Passport fraud offenses with a term of imprisonment of one year or greater, except for first offenses involving attempts to enable entry by a relative of the accused
    • Failure to appear to serve a sentence for which the underlying offense is punishable by imprisonment for five or more years
    • Offenses involving commercial bribery, counterfeiting, forgery, or trafficking in vehicles with altered identification numbers with a term of imprisonment of at least one year
    • Offenses involving obstruction of justice, perjury, subornation of perjury, and witness tampering with a term of imprisonment of at least one year
    • Failure to appear in court pursuant to court order to answer to a felony charge for which a sentence of two or more years’ imprisonment may be imposed
    • Committing or being convicted of one or more crimes involving "moral turpitude"[10]
    • Committing and being convicted of two or more offenses with a total sentence of five or more years
    • Being confined to a penal institution during the statutory period (either the preceding three or five years, depending on the circumstances, or one year for Armed Forces expedited cases) for an aggregate of 180 days or more
    • Committing and being convicted of two or more gambling offenses
    • Earning your principal income from gambling.
    • Being involved in prostitution or commercialized vice
    • Being involved in smuggling illegal aliens into the United States
    • Being a habitual drunkard
    • Practicing polygamy
    • Willfully failing or refusing to support dependents
    • Giving false testimony under oath in order to receive benefits under the Immigration and Nationality Act

Additionally, several other prior activities can disqualify a person from having a current “good moral character"[11]

  • Failing to register for Selective Service
  • Providing false information in documents
  • Falsely claiming U.S. citizenship
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