What Happens When a Noncitizen Commits a Crime?

Criminal activity will almost always have serious consequences in the United States, but the stakes are much higher for anyone without U.S. citizenship. While a U.S. citizen may owe criminal fines and penalties or spend time in prison, a noncitizen may have trouble qualifying for immigration benefits, retaining their status, and even remaining in the United States. This may be true even without a formal conviction—especially for drug-related crimes.

Let’s take a closer look at the consequences of committing a crime as a noncitizen.

Trouble Qualifying for a Green Card or Citizenship

Nearly all immigration applications require you to disclose criminal conduct. Most criminal grounds of inadmissibility are based on actual convictions, but any arrests or interactions with the police can significantly complicate your case. Because adjudicating officers use their discretion to grant visas and green cards, they may deny your application even if you were not officially convicted of a crime.

Furthermore, a criminal history is one factor that can prevent you from demonstrating “good moral character” when applying for citizenship through naturalization. Generally, the adjudicating officer will assess the last five years of your time in the United States, but they may go back further in certain cases. If you have been arrested or convicted of a crime, you will likely need to demonstrate your rehabilitation by waiting at least five years before applying for naturalization.


Some crimes will not just prevent you from becoming a permanent resident or citizen—they might also trigger a removal proceeding.

Criminal grounds of deportability include:

  • Crimes involving moral turpitude
  • Multiple criminal convictions
  • Aggravated felonies
  • High-speed flight from an immigration checkpoint
  • Failure to register as a sex offender
  • Controlled substance offenses
  • Certain firearm offenses
  • Domestic violence offenses
  • Human trafficking offenses
  • Violations of protective orders

If you are getting deported because of criminal activity, you MAY qualify for a waiver that forgives this conduct—but some types of crimes (e.g. aggravated felonies) are not eligible for waivers. If you are getting deported for a different reason, a criminal history may prevent you from obtaining relief from the removal proceeding.

The main difference between grounds of inadmissibility and grounds of deportability is that grounds of deportability generally require a conviction. In other words, you typically cannot be deported just because an officer has “reason to believe” you committed a crime.

What About Juvenile Delinquencies?

For immigration purposes, juvenile delinquencies are notcrimes, and findings are not convictions. Thus, it is crucial that a minor noncitizen’s case is adjudicated in a juvenile proceeding rather than adult criminal court.

However, a delinquency disposition can still be problematic. Some grounds of inadmissibility or deportability are conduct-based (i.e. “bad acts”), so an adjudicating officer may deny an application or initiate a removal proceeding without a conviction.

If the child is undocumented, any conduct of theirs that gives the government “reason to believe” they are involved in drug trafficking can even permanently bar them from obtaining lawful permanent residence.

Potential Solutions

If you have been arrested and/or convicted of a crime, you may have several options at your disposal.

Your relief options may include:

  • waiver. If you obtain a waiver, it will permanently forgive a certain ground of inadmissibility or deportability. Waivers often require you to prove that your deportation or application denial would cause your U.S. citizen relative to suffer a certain level of hardship.
  • Criminal record expungement. While expungement won’t technically remove a criminal offense, adjudicating officers may see it as a sign of rehabilitation.
  • A T or U visa. These visas are for victims of trafficking (T visas) and other crimes (U visas) who assist law enforcement with the investigation of the crime. You may qualify for one of these visas even if you have a criminal history. Once you have a T or U visa, you may be able to adjust your status to lawful permanent residence.

To overcome a criminal history as a noncitizen, you will need personalized support from an experienced professional. Crimmigration is a complex area of law that requires specialized knowledge and advocacy.

Let Our Law Firm Advocate for Your Rights

At The Law Office of Yifei He, PLLC, our attorney is deeply committed to helping noncitizens accomplish their immigration goals and stay safe in the United States. A criminal offense can create serious problems for your case, but our law firm has the resources needed to fight for your rights and future. If you have been arrested, charged, and/or convicted, let our attorney step in and provide the dedicated representation you deserve.

Call 1 (917) 338-7678 or contact us online today.