Immigration 101: Crimes of Moral Turpitude

There is no exact definition of the phrase “crime of moral turpitude,” but generally, it refers to crimes that seem inherently wrong or immoral to a reasonable person. Crimes that involve an element of fraud, or an intentional effort to seriously injure another person, will probably qualify as crimes of moral turpitude. On the other had, crimes that involve conduct that was merely reckless or negligent, rather than intentional, or that involve only property damage, are less likely to qualify. Minor traffic offenses and violations of immigration laws are usually not considered crimes of moral turpitude.

If you have ever committed a crime involving “moral turpitude,” you may be inadmissible. It doesn’t matter if you were convicted – or even accused – of a crime involving moral turpitude. Simply admitting that you committed acts that would constitute a crime of moral turpitude could mean that you are inadmissible.

If you have been convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude after being admitted to the US, you may be deportable. Whether you are actually deportable will depend on whether the crime was committed within five years of your admission, and whether the maximum potential length of the sentence you could have received for that crime was one year or more. So, for example, if you were convicted of a crime that has a maximum sentence of one year, but you were only sentenced to nine months, you would still be deportable under this ground if the crime was committed within five years of your admission.

If you have been convicted of two or more crimes involving moral turpitude after being admitted to the US, you may be deportable. It doesn’t matter how long the actual or potential jail sentences were, or how many years elapsed between your admission and the commission of these crimes.

Neither the severity of the crime, nor the length of the sentence, determine whether it qualifies as a crime of moral turpitude. It also doesn’t matter whether the crime was a felony or a misdemeanor. There are plenty of misdemeanors that qualify, and plenty of felonies that don’t. Consulting with an experienced immigration attorney is often the only way to tell.

This inadmissibility ground may also be waived under the provisions in INA §212(h). There are also three important exceptions to this ground:

  1. Exception for Crimes Punishable by Less Than One Year Incarceration, a.k.a. the Petty Offense Exception: You will not be considered inadmissible for having committed a crime of moral turpitude if: (1) you only committed one qualifying crime; (2) the criminal statute you violated has a maximum potential penalty of one year in jail or less; and (3) the length of the sentence imposed was six months or less, regardless of how much time you actually served. For example, if the judge sentenced you to seven months in jail, but you only served five months because of good behavior, you would not necessarily qualify for the petty offense exception, because the sentence imposed was longer than six months.
  2. Exception for Crimes Committed by Minors: You will not be considered inadmissible for having committed a crime of moral turpitude if: (1) you only committed one such crime; (2) you committed the crime before your eighteenth birthday; and (3) more than five years have passed since the date the crime was committed or the date you were released from any period of incarceration imposed as a result of that crime.
  3. Exception for Purely Political Offenses: You will not be considered inadmissible based on a conviction for a purely political offense. This means that you won’t be inadmissible because of a conviction by a repressive government on charges that were clearly made up, or that were an obvious excuse to punish you because you belong to a disfavored ethnic, religious, or political group.

Even if one of these exceptions apply, the underlying crime may still make you inadmissible under another ground. For example, you might still be removable if you committed a crime relating to a controlled substance, or if you were convicted of multiple criminal offenses. If you have committed or been convicted of a crime in the US or in your home country, it is very important to consult with an experienced immigration attorney to find out how your criminal history might affect your application.

This article is part of our ongoing “Immigration 101” series, in which we break down topics in US immigration law. For more articles in this series, click here.

The content in this post was originally written by Stuart Nickum and adapted by Lena Barouh.


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