Deportable Offenses - Crimes That Lead to Deportation

Under U.S. immigration law, certain "deportable offenses" can have serious immigration consequences.

If you are convicted of one of these so-called "deportable offenses," and you are not a United States citizen, then the Department of Homeland Security ("DHS") may deport you--regardless of how long you have lived in the United States or how well-established your life is here.2

The major categories of "deportable crimes" are:

  1. So-called "crimes of moral turpitude,"

  2. So-called "aggravated felonies,"

  3. Controlled substances (drug) offenses,

  4. Firearms offenses, and

  5. Domestic violence crimes.3

Unfortunately, far too many immigrants facing criminal charges are represented by criminal defense attorneys who do not understand the immigration consequences of a conviction for a deportable offense.

As a result, these attorneys may not fight the charge as aggressively as they should--and might even advise the defendant to plead guilty or "no contest."

Example: Javier was born in Brazil but came to the U.S. with his parents as an infant. He has been living in Oakland ever since.

When Javier is 19, he is caught with 100 grams of cocaine in his possession. The prosecutor initially charges him with possession of a controlled substance for sale, which carries a maximum sentence of four years in jail.4

Javier's criminal defense attorney - who does not understand immigration law - advises him to plead guilty Instead to possession of a controlled substance for personal use. This is because that offense carries a much lower maximum sentence--only one year in jail.5

But after he's already pled guilty, Javier discovers that his drug possession conviction (like almost all California drug crimes) is a deportable offense.6  If Javier's attorney had understood criminal immigration law, he probably would have advised him to fight the more serious charge instead.

What about President Trump's plans to speed up deportation of immigrants with criminal records?

Under the Obama administration's "Priority Enforcement Program," DHS was directed to focus its resources on deportable immigrants who had more serious deportable crimes on their records: convicted gang members, immigrants with felonies or aggravated felonies, and immigrants with either "significant misdemeanor" convictions or three or more misdemeanor convictions. 

But in early 2017, President Donald Trump issued several executive orders on immigration calling for more aggressive enforcement of immigration laws. As a result, the DHS will now devote resources to deporting any immigrant convicted of a deportable crime--even relatively insignificant ones.

This is why it is extremely important for all non-citizens facing criminal charges to be represented by a criminal defense and immigration attorney who is an expert in immigration law as well as criminal law.

In order to help you better understand which crimes can lead to deportation, our California immigration attorneys will address the following:

If, after reading this article, you have additional questions, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group.

1. Who Can Be Deported Due to Criminal Convictions?

The federal Immigration and Nationality Act (usually referred to as the "INA") provides that any non-citizen living in the United States may be deported - that is, removed from the country - if they are convicted of certain criminal offenses.7

It does not matter

  • how long you have lived in the US,

  • how well-established your life is here (e.g., homeownership, job, business ownership), or

  • whether you have a dependent child who is a US citizen.9

Similarly, it does not matter what your immigration status is. All non-citizens are subject to the deportability sections of the INA,10 whether they are

  • legal permanent residents (aka "green card" holders),

  • visa holders (student visas, work visas, etc.), or

  • refugees who have been granted asylum.

Example: Jesus is born in Mexico. He is admitted to the US as a lawful permanent resident ("green card" holder) when he is only two years old and lives here continuously from then on. He marries an American citizen when he is in his 20s--but he never becomes a citizen himself.

After being convicted of several theft crimes which are deportable offenses, Jesus is deported to Mexico. It does not matter that he's lived virtually his entire life in the U.S. and has strong ties here.11

Deportation vs. inadmissibility

It is important to note that deportation is not the only thing non-citizens have to worry about if they are convicted of a crime. Inadmissibility is another potential immigration consequence of a criminal conviction.

If you a non-citizen and you are convicted of certain "inadmissible crimes"12, you may not be allowed to:

  1. Re-enter the country after leaving,

  2. Become a U.S. citizen, or

  3. Apply for permanent residence (a green card) or an "adjustment of status" -- that is, a change from illegal to legal immigration status.13

But--in contrast to a conviction for one of the deportable crimes we discuss below--a conviction for an inadmissible crime will not necessarily lead to you being removed from the country against your will.14

2. What is a Deportable Crime of Moral Turpitude?

Section 237 of the INA lists the crimes for which you can be deported.15

The first major category of deportable crime consists of so-called "crimes of moral turpitude" (also known as "crimes involving moral turpitude" or "CIMTs").16

Crimes of moral turpitude are an unusually complicated area of immigration law. That is because the INA does not define what a "crime of moral turpitude" is.17 As a result, California and federal courts have had to come up with their own definition.18

Definition of moral turpitude

Courts have defined moral turpitude as a corruption of the social basic duties that everyone owes to other people and to society as a whole--in other words, antisocial behavior that harms another person or the social good.19

California courts have decided that the following are crimes are crimes of moral turpitude (and hence potentially deportable crimes):

  • Arson,20

  • Assault with a deadly weapon,21

  • Burglary,22

  • Cultivation of marijuana,23

  • Forgery,24

  • Grand theft25 and grand theft auto,26

  • Kidnapping,27

  • Murder,28

  • Possession for sale of controlled substances,29

  • Rape,30

  • Receiving stolen property,31 and

  • Repeated felony convictions for driving under the influence (DUI).32

(On that last item, the immigration consequences of a DUI conviction are a very complicated topic and are best addressed by an experienced criminal immigration attorney.)

What about crimes that are not crimes of moral turpitude? California courts have decided that the following crimes are not crimes involving moral turpitude and thus do not have the same immigration consequences (i.e., deportability):

  • Assault (not Involving a deadly weapon),33

  • Child endangerment,34

  • Indecent exposure,35 and

  • Involuntary manslaughter.36

Crimes of moral turpitude and deportability

Just being convicted of a single crime of moral turpitude is not enough to make you deportable. Instead, you are deportable only if you either:

  1. Are convicted of a crime of moral turpitude for which a prison sentence of one (1) year or longer may be imposed, within five (5) years of being admitted to the U.S., OR
  2. Are convicted of two (2) or more crimes of moral turpitude that did not arise out of a single criminal scheme.37

Example: Sophia is originally from El Salvador and has been a lawful permanent resident of the U.S. for ten years. Her personal life takes a turn for the worse, and she is convicted of grand theft auto under Vehicle Code 10851 for attempting to steal a car. She receives a misdemeanor sentence and serves some time in county jail.38

Even though this is a crime of moral turpitude, Sophia is not deportable. She's been convicted of only one crime of moral turpitude--and the conviction occurred more than five years after she was admitted to the U.S.


Example: Let's say that, a few years later, Sophia is arrested for burglary.

If she is convicted, she will be deportable--because this would be her second conviction of a crime of moral turpitude, and it is not part of the same criminal scheme as her grand theft auto conviction.

Therefore, it is in Sophia's best interest to aggressively fight this charge--to avoid being deported to El Salvador if she is convicted.

3. What is a Deportable Aggravated Felony?

Another category of deportable crime is the so-called "aggravated felony." 39 This means that a conviction for certain felonies can lead to you being removed from this country.

In contrast to crimes moral of turpitude--which have to be identified as such by courts--the phrase "aggravated felony" has a specific definition in the INA.40 Some of the most important aggravated felonies under criminal immigration law are:

  1. Murder,

  2. Rape,

  3. Sexual abuse of a minor,

  4. Drug trafficking,

  5. Illicit trafficking in firearms,

  6. Theft crimes for which the sentence is more than one (1) year in prison,

  7. Crimes related to the operation or supervision of a prostitution business (such as pimping), and

  8. Fraud crimes that swindle the victim out of at least ten thousand dollars ($10,000).41

You may notice that there is some overlap between the list of crimes of moral turpitude and the list of aggravated felonies. For example, murder and rape are on both lists.42

Example: Ahmed moved to the United States as a refugee from Somalia eight years ago. He is arrested and charged with rape-which is a crime of moral turpitude AND an aggravated felony.

Normally, a single conviction of a crime of moral turpitude that occurred 8 years after he entered the U.S. would not make Ahmed deportable. But rape is also an aggravated felony. Therefore, if Ahmed is convicted, he will be deported.

According to Santa Ana criminal and immigration attorney John Murray43 :

"For a criminal defendant who is not a U.S. citizen, an aggravated felony conviction is very bad news. Not enough criminal defense attorneys understand this right off the bat. For me, the most Important goal for a non-citizen client is avoiding an aggravated felony conviction--whether this is best done by pleading guilty to a non-deportable crime or by fighting the charge with all we've got."

4. Can I Be Deported if I Am Convicted of a Drug Crime?

Another major category of deportable crimes is controlled substances offenses. Under the INA, almost all drug crimes can lead to deportation.44

This includes both serious and not-so-serious drug crimes. You may be deported if you are convicted of

  • Drug manufacturing,

  • Drug transport / sale,

  • Possession of drugs for sale, or

  • Simple possession.45

There is one exception. You may not be deported if your drug crime conviction is for a single charge of simple possession of marijuana - as long as the amount possessed is thirty (30) grams (the equivalent of just over one ounce) or less.46 (In 2016, Proposition 64 legalized simple possession of small amounts of marijuana in California, so this exception will not have much impact going forward.)

This provision of the INA have incredibly harsh results for many immigrants -- just because convictions for drug offenses are so common, and happen so frequently to otherwise law-abiding people.

A few years back, almost one-third of the non-citizens who were deported for deportable criminal convictions were deported because of drug offenses.47 In 2009, almost 40,000 immigrants were deported after a drug conviction.48

5. Can I Be Deported if I Am Convicted of a Firearms Offense?

Another group of deportable crimes is offenses related to firearms or destructive devices.49

Specifically, you can be deported if you are convicted of illegally

  • purchasing,

  • selling,

  • exchanging,

  • Possessing,

  • using, or

  • carrying,

any firearm.50

In practice, however, you are only likely to be deported if you are found guilty of committing a federal firearm offense. A conviction for violating California gun laws usually only leads to deportation if it involves an assault weapon or it is used in committing another crime, for instance, assault with a firearm (which is also a crime of moral turpitude51).

6. Can I Be Deported for a Domestic Violence Conviction?

The last major category of deportable crimes is violations of domestic violence laws.52

You need only a single conviction of a domestic violence offense to be deportable.53 For purposes of the INA, a "domestic violence offense" means not just a classic domestic abuse crime like domestic battery on a spouse or partner--but also child abuse and even violating a restraining order.54

Example: Rajiv is from India. He is a graduate student at the University of California and is living in the U.S. on a student visa. He and his girlfriend have a tumultuous relationship, and she ends up obtaining a restraining order against him.

Rajiv is unfamiliar with the concept of an American restraining order, and he contacts his girlfriend repeatedly--thereby violating the order. He is arrested and convicted of violating a restraining order. This means that he may now be deported.

7. Deportable Crimes and Related Topics

7.1. Can I be deported for a drug addiction?

In addition to the deportable crimes we just described, another common cause of deportation is a section of the INA that allows the government to deport you for being addicted to drugs -- even if you are never convicted of a crime related to this! 55

Specifically, section 212(a)(2)(B) of the INA provides that you may be deported if you either

  • currently are a drug addict or abuser, or

  • have been a drug abuser or addict since you were admitted to the U.S.56

7.2. Can I use post-conviction relief to avoid deportation for a criminal conviction?

Many of our clients want to know if there's any way to save their immigration status--and their life in the United States--even if they have a conviction for a California deportable crime on their record.

The answer may be yes. An experienced California criminal and immigration attorney can offer you advice on the possibility of receiving some kind of post-conviction relief. If you are eligible for the right form of post-conviction relief, your conviction may not lead to you being deported.

Some of the most common forms of post-conviction relief are:

  1. Reduction of a felony to a misdemeanor,

  2. A motion to vacate a conviction based on a guilty plea if you were not advised of the immigration consequences of the plea,57

  3. Re-sentencing so that your new, lesser sentence does not trigger immigration consequences, and

  4. A motion to vacate a conviction based on a claim that you received ineffective assistance of counsel (i.e., bad legal advice).58

7.3. What is cancellation of removal?

Even if you are unable to obtain any form of post-conviction relief, you may still be eligible for something called "cancellation of removal."59 An application for cancellation of removal would be dealt with in US Immigration Court, not in a criminal court.

You may be eligible for cancellation of removal only if you are a lawful permanent resident--that is, a "green card" holder--and you meet all of the following requirements:

  1. You have had your green card for at least five (5) years,

  2. You have lived in the U.S. continuously, with some legal immigration status, for at least seven (7) years, AND

  3. You have not been convicted of an aggravated felony.60

7.4. How do President Trump's immigration orders affect immigrants with deportable convictions?

In January 2017, President Donald Trump issued several executive orders on immigration designed to increase the number of immigrants deported from the U.S.61

The most important feature of these orders for immigrants with California deportable crimes on their record is the Trump administration's decision to end former President Obama's Priority Enforcement Program.62

Realistically, U.S. immigration authorities in recent years have not had the resources to deport every immigrant who is technically deportable under criminal immigration law. So DHS focused its energies on locating and deporting immigrants with more serious deportable crimes on their record--such as gang offenses, aggravated felonies, or three or more misdemeanors.63

But the Trump administration has discontinued the Priority Enforcement Program. Instead, Immigration and Customs Enforcement ("ICE") is supposed to focus its resources on all deportable immigrants with any criminal conviction. This would include both:

  • Undocumented (illegal) immigrants who have been convicted of or charged with any crime, and
  • Documented (legal) immigrants who have been convicted of any deportable crime--including minor controlled substances offenses.64

President Trump has also restored a program called "Secure Communities," which had been discontinued by former President Obama. Under the Secure Communities program, local law enforcement agencies are supposed to send fingerprints of arrested suspects to federal immigration authorities--and detain the suspects for up to 48 hours if asked to do so by ICE.65

This program will probably make it easier for ICE to identify immigrants who are deportable because of a conviction for a deportable crime.

Call Us for Help ...

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Call us for help

If you or a loved one is charged with a crime that could lead to deportation and you are looking to hire an attorney for representation, we invite you to contact our California immigration attorneys at Shouse Law Group.

We have local offices in Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, Pasadena, Long Beach, Orange County, Ventura, San Bernardino, Rancho Cucamonga, Riverside, San Diego, Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose and throughout California.

To learn more about deportable crimes in Nevada, please visit our page on deportable crimes in Nevada.

¿Habla español? Visite nuestro sitio Web en español sobre los delitos que dan lugar a la deportación en California.

Legal References:

  1. 8 U.S.C. 1227 - Deportable aliens [key section of criminal immigration law]. 
  2. See same.
  3. See same.
  4. Health and Safety Code 11351 HS - California's law against possession of a controlled substance for sale [a deportable crime]. 
  5. Health and Safety Code 11350 HS - California's law against possession of a controlled substance for personal use [a deportable crime]. 
  6. See INA 237, endnote 1 above [deportable crimes].
  7. See INA 237, endnote 1 above [deportable crimes].
  8. See Saw-Reyes v. INS, (5th Cir. 1978) 585 F.2d 762.
  9. Encis-Cardozo v. INS (2d Cir. 1974), 504 F.2d 1252. 
  10. See INA 101, 8 USC 1101 - Definitions. 
  11. Based on the facts of Sierra-Reyes v. INS, endnote 8 above.
  12. 212 INA, 8 USC 1182 - (a) Classes of aliens ineligible for visas or admission [key section of criminal immigration law]. 
  13. 245 INA, 8 USC 1255 - Adjustment of status of nonimmigrant to that of person admitted for permanent residence [can be affected by inadmissibility, which is distinct from deportability]. 
  14. See CEB California Criminal Law Practice & Procedure § 52.18: Grounds of inadmissibility [contrast to consequences of deportable crimes]. 
  15. See INA 237, endnote 1 above [deportable crimes].
  16. See INA 237 (a) (2) (A)(l) -- Crimes of moral turpitude [one category of deportable crime].
  17. 101 See INA, 8 USC 1101 - Definitions [for purposes of criminal immigration law].
  18. See Nunez v. Holder, (2010) 594 F.3d 1124, 1124.
  19. In re Craig, (1938) 12 Cal.2d 93, 97. 
  20. People v. Miles, (1985) 172 Cal.App.3d 474, 482.
  21. People v. Cavazos, (1985) 172 Cal.App.3d 589, 595.
  22. People v. Castro (1986) 186 Cal.App.3d 1211.
  23. People v. Gabriel, (2012) 206 Cal.App.4th 450, 459.
  24. People v. Parrish (1985) 170 Cal.App.3d 336, 349.
  25. People v. Boyd (1985) 167 Cal.App.3d 36, 45.
  26. People v. Rodriguez (1986) 177 Cal.App.3d 174, 178.
  27. People v. Zataray (1985), 173 Cal.App.3d 390, 400.
  28. People v. Johnson, (1991) 233 Cal.App.3d 425, 459.
  29. People v. Castro (1985), 38 Cal.3d 301, 317.
  30. People v. Mazza, (1985) 175 Cal.App.3d 836, 844.
  31. People v. Rodriguez (1986) 177 Cal.App.3d 174, 179.
  32. People v. Forster (1994) 29 Cal.App.4th 1746, 1756. 
  33. People v. Cavazos, endnote 21, above.
  34. People v. Sanders (1992) 10 Cal.App.4th 1268, 1274.
  35. Nunez v. Holder, (9th Cir. 2010) 594 F.3d 1124.
  36. People v. Solis, (1985) 172 Cal.App.3d 877, 883.
  37. See INA 237 (a) (2) (A) [deportable crimes], endnote 16, above.
  38. Vehicle Code 10851 VC - Joyriding / grand theft auto [a potentially deportable crime of moral turpitude]. 
  39. See INA 237 (a) (2) (A) (iii) [deportable crimes]. 
  40. 101 INA, 8 USC 1101 (a) (43) - Definitions [of aggravated felony, a form of deportable crime]. 
  41. See same.
  42. See same. See also People v. Johnson, endnote 28, above, and People v. Mazza, endnote 30, above.
  43. Santa Ana criminal and immigration attorney John Murray represents both citizen and non-citizen clients in matters ranging from DUI to homicide, in courthouses across Los Angeles and Orange counties.
  44. See INA 237 (a) (2) (B) [deportable crimes]. 
  45. See same.
  46. See same.
  47. See Phillip Smith, Drug Offenses 1/3 of US Criminal deportations at, Aug. 30, 2010.
  48. See same.
  49. INA 237 (a) (2) (C) [deportable crimes]. 
  50. See same.
  51. See People v. Cavazos, endnote 21, above.
  52. INA 237 (a) (2) (E) [deportable crimes]. 
  53. See same.
  54. See same.
  55. INA 237 (a) (2) (B) (ii) [deportable crimes].
  56. See same.
  57. Penal Code 1016.5 PC - Advisement concerning status as alien [immigration consequences of California criminal convictions, including deportability]. 
  58. See People v. Lucas (1995) 12 Cal.4th 415, 436. 
  59. 8 USC 1229b. 
  60. See same.
  61. See presidential executive orders entitled Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements and Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States, Jan. 25, 2017.
  62. Department of Homeland Security, Enforcement of the Immigration Laws to Serve the National Interest, Feb. 20, 2017. 
  63. Department of Homeland Security, Policies for the Apprehension, Detention, and Removal of Undocumented Immigrants, Nov. 20, 2014.
  64. Department of Homeland Security, Enforcement of the Immigration Laws to Serve the National Interest, Feb. 20, 2017, endnote 62 above.
  65. Same.





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