Inadmissible Crimes:
Crimes That May Affect Your Immigration Status

Convictions for certain crimes can make a non-US citizen "inadmissible" to the United States. While inadmissibility is not as serious an immigration consequence as deportability, it still has a serious impact on an immigrant's life and future in the United States.1

If you are inadmissible, that means you will not be allowed to re-enter the country after you've left it, even if you are a legal immigrant.2

Being inadmissible also means you are ineligible to receive any kind of benefit from the US immigration authorities--for example, an adjustment to legal immigrant status if you are here illegally.3

The most important "inadmissible crimes" (crimes that render you inadmissible) are:

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

  2. Controlled substances (drug) offenses, and

  3. Multiple criminal convictions with sentences totaling five (5) years or more.4

In addition, you may be deemed inadmissible for engaging in certain kinds of conduct--even if you are never convicted of a crime in connection with it, The main grounds for conduct-based inadmissibility are

  1. Prostitution-related activity, and

  2. Drug trafficking.5

Example: Rita crosses the border illegally from Mexico with her ​​parents when she is seven years old. Rita learns English quickly and excels in school. After Rita graduates from high school, she works full-time as a receptionist during the day and attends college at night, studying for a nursing degree.

But Rita likes to use ecstasy with her ​​friends occasionally. One night she and several friends are arrested outside the club, and Rita is charged with possession of a controlled substance. Rita's friends--all of whom are U.S. citizens--plead guilty to that minor offense and avoid jail time through drug diversion. Rita decides to do the same.

Rita later finds out that her guilty plea to a drug crime -- even one as insignificant as simple possession -- makes her "inadmissible."6 This means that, if she wants to apply for adjustment of status and become a legal immigrant, she will not be able to do so.7

As this example shows, it is often Important for immigrants--both legal and illegal--to fight certain criminal charges aggressively. It is also usually in their interest to avoid a guilty or "no contest" plea, even in cases where such a plea would make sense for a United States citizen.

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

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 enforcing immigration laws against any immigrant who is deportable because of a criminal record.

While an inadmissible conviction will not by itself make you deportable, it can prevent you from re-entering the country, renewing our visa, or adjusting your status. This, in turn, can lead to a loss of your legal immigrant status and can make you deportable.

The intersection of criminal law and immigration law is an extremely complicated topic. This is why all non-citizens facing criminal charges should be represented by a criminal defense and immigration attorney who understands both areas.

In order to help you better understand which crimes can make you inadmissible, we will address the following:

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

1. What Does it Mean to be "Inadmissible"?

The federal Immigration and Nationality Act (usually referred to as the "INA"), section 212, sets out the concept of "inadmissibility" to the U.S.8

In a nutshell, being "inadmissible" means that you are not eligible to receive any benefits that would be granted by the U.S. immigration authorities. 9 Here are some of the things you will not be able to do if you are inadmissible:

  1. Re-enter the country after leaving (even if you hold a valid visa to live in the US or are a "lawful permanent resident," aka a green card holder),

  2. Become a US citizen,

  3. Apply for permanent residence (a green card), or

  4. Apply for an "adjustment of status" - that is, a change from illegal to legal immigration status.10

The good news is that a conviction for an inadmissible crime will probably not lead to you being removed from the country--that is, deported--against your will.11 Generally speaking, you have to worry about deportation only if either of the following is true :

  1. You are convicted of a deportable crime (note that some of these overlap with inadmissible crimes),12 OR

  2. You entered the country or received an immigration benefit while you were inadmissible (and the authorities just did not catch it at the time).13

2. Inadmissible Crimes: Crimes of Moral Turpitude

The first major category of inadmissible crime consists of so-called "crimes of moral turpitude" (also known as "crimes Involving moral turpitude" or "CIMTs").14

2.1. What is a "crime of moral turpitude"?

Crimes of moral turpitude are an unusually complicated area of immigration law. This is because the INA does not define what a "crime of moral turpitude" is.15 Instead, California and federal courts have had to come up with their own definition.16

Courts have defined moral turpitude as a corruption of the basic social 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.17

A few of the crimes that California courts have decided are crimes are crimes of moral turpitude are:

  • Arson,18

  • Assault with a deadly weapon,19

  • Burglary,20

  • Cultivation of marijuana,21

  • Forgery,22

  • Grand theft 23 and grand theft auto,24

  • Kidnapping,25

  • Murder,26

  • Possession for sale of controlled substances,27

  • Rape,28

  • Receiving stolen property,29 and

  • Repeated felony convictions for driving under the influence (DUI).30

(On that last item, the immigration consequences of a California 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 so do not have the same immigration consequences (including inadmissibility):

  • Assault (not Involving a deadly weapon),31

  • Child endangerment,32

  • Indecent exposure,33 and

  • Involuntary manslaughter.34

2.2. Will a crime of moral turpitude make me inadmissible?

You can be deemed inadmissible if you either

  • are convicted of, or

  • admit all the elements of,

a crime of moral turpitude.35

Example: Norma was born in Guatemala but has been a lawful permanent resident of the US (that is, a green card holder) for ten years. She is convicted of the California crime of forgery - a crime of moral turpitude - and sentenced to one year in jail. This makes her inadmissible.

Norma has a green card, and she cannot be deported for a single conviction of a crime of moral turpitude.36 However, because she is now inadmissible, she may not be able to become a U.S. citizen. Also, if she travels back to Guatemala to see her family, she may not be allowed to re-enter the United States.

However, there are two major exceptions to the rule that a conviction for a crime of moral turpitude makes a non-citizen inadmissible.

The first is known as the "petty offense exception" to inadmissibility for a CIMT. If

  • Your conviction is for only one crime,

  • The maximum penalty does not exceed one (1) year, AND

  • You are sentenced to a jail term of six (6) months or less,

Then a conviction of (or admission to) a crime of moral turpitude will not make you inadmissible.37

Example: Let's return to Norma from our previous example. Let's say she is in fact convicted of forgery--but it is California  misdemeanor forgery, which carries a maximum sentence of one year,38 and she is only sentenced to six months in county jail.

In this case, thanks to the "petty offense" exception, Norma will not be inadmissible.

According to Long Beach criminal and immigration attorney Neil Shouse:39

"The "petty offense" exception is just one good reason why it's important to hire a criminal defense lawyer who understands the intersection of criminal and immigration law. If you are charged with a crime of moral turpitude, your attorney can help you try to arrange for a charge with a maximum penalty of less than one year--and an actual sentence of less than six months--so that the conviction will not make you inadmissible."

The other exception to the rule that a crime of moral turpitude makes you inadmissible applies to immigrants who commit a crime of moral turpitude while they are minors. If:

  1. You committed the crime involving moral turpitude when you were under eighteen (18) years of age, AND

  2. You committed the crime (and any criminal sentence for the crime was completed) more than five (5) years before the date of your application for a green card, visa, admission to the US, etc.,

then the conviction will not count against you and will not make you inadmissible.40

Example: Trisha and her parents are undocumented immigrants from Trinidad & Tobago. Trisha has lived here since she was three years old.

When she is 17, Trisha is convicted of grand theft auto under Vehicle Code 10851 VC (joyriding) for an unsuccessful attempt to steal a car.41 She serves a sentence of one year in county jail and is released when she is 18.

When she is 25, Trisha decide to apply for an adjustment of status to become a legal immigrant. Even though she has a conviction for a crime of moral turpitude, she may still be able to achieve this--because she was under 18 when she committed the crime, and her sentence ended more than five years ago.

3. Inadmissible Crimes: Drug Offenses

You can be rendered inadmissible if you either

  • are convicted of, or

  • admit to all the elements of,

any federal or state drug crime.42

This includes both serious and not-so-serious drug crimes. You may be inadmissible if you are convicted of (or just admit to all the elements of) crimes that include:

  • Drug manufacturing,

  • Drug transportation / sale,

  • Possession of drugs for sale, and

  • Simple possession.43

Example: Chan is a refugee from Laos. He becomes Involved with a Laotian-American gang that engages in drug trafficking.

Chan has a fairly low-level position in the gang. He is arrested and agrees to testify against the higher-ups in the gang in exchange for the prosecutors not charging him with a crime. But as part of his testimony, Chan ends up admitting to all the elements of the crime of drug possession for sale.

Even though he has not been convicted of a crime, Chan is now inadmissible--because he admitted to all the elements of a drug crime.

This element of inadmissibility law is especially harsh--particularly since there is no "petty offense" exception, or exception for drug crimes committed when the immigrant was a minor, like there are for crimes of moral turpitude.44 Because drug use is so common in the world today, this law imposes harsh immigration consequences on otherwise law-abiding immigrants who have a lot to contribute to U.S. society.

But there is cause for hope. In 2016, California voters passed Proposition 64, which legalized the restricted use and sale of recreational marijuana. Thanks to Prop 64, the list of inadmissible drug crimes in California just got a bit smaller.

4. Inadmissible Crimes: Multiple Convictions

Finally, you may also be declared inadmissible if:

  1. You are convicted of two (2) or more crimes, and

  2. The full sentences you receive for all the crimes of which you are convicted add up to five (5) years or more.46

It does not matter what kind of crimes these are--or even whether they arose out of a single scheme or act.47

Example: Klaus, a green card holder from Germany, is arrested in connection with a complicated scheme to embezzle funds from his employer. He is convicted of both one count of forgery and one count of grand theft, with both charged as felonies. He receives a full sentence of six years in prison.48

Klaus is inadmissible because he now has multiple criminal convictions--even though they grew out of the same criminal scheme. (He would also have been inadmissible on the grounds that both forgery and grand theft are crimes of moral turpitude.)49

5. What is "Conduct-Based" Inadmissibility?

There are also certain kinds of conduct that can render you inadmissible--even if you are never convicted of a crime, and even if your conduct was not criminal at all! These are:


You can be inadmissible if you either:

  1. Came to the U.S. to engage in prostitution,

  2. Engaged in prostitution within 10 years of your application for admission, adjustment of status, or a visa, OR

  3. Procured or attempted to procure other people to engage in prostitution.50

Again, you do not need to have been convicted of crimes related to prostitution to be inadmissible on this basis.51

Example: Anna is from Bulgaria. She enters the U.S. with the help of a friend named Yuri. Then Yuri demands that she engage in prostitution in order to pay back the money she owes him for bringing her here. Anna works as a prostitute for several months.She is never arrested for prostitution.

A couple of years later, Anna meets Ralph, an American citizen, and they get married. Anna wants to apply for a green card now that she is married to an American. But she may not be able to do so if the government somehow finds out that she engaged in prostitution when she first arrived.

Drug trafficking

If the immigration authorities know or "reasonably believe" that you have ever been Involved in drug trafficking--even if you have not been formally convicted of trafficking--then you will be inadmissible.52

Example: Let's return to the example of Chan, from Section 3 above. Chan cooperates with prosecutors and testifies about details of the drug trafficking operation he was involved with in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

Let's say Chan's testimony suggests that he may have played a role in the trafficking operation. This leads the Department of Homeland Security to "reasonably believe" that he was involved in drug trafficking and declare him inadmissible.

What's more, inadmissibility on this basis extends beyond the person who engaged in drug trafficking. You can be inadmissible if:

  1. You are the spouse or child of an alien who is inadmissible because s/he has engaged in drug trafficking;

  2. You have received money or other benefits from that person's drug trafficking activities within the previous (5) years; AND

  3. You knew or reasonably should have known that the money or other benefits came from drug trafficking proceeds.

Drug addiction

Finally, you will be inadmissible if the immigration authorities determine that you are a drug addict or abuser.53

6. How Does President Trump's Deportation Plan Affect Inadmissible Immigrants?

In January 2017, President Donald Trump issued several executive orders on immigration designed to increase the number of immigrants deported from the U.S.54

For legal (documented) immigrants with inadmissible crimes on their record, the immediate impact of these orders may not be great. The focus of these orders is on enabling and expediting the deportation of:

  • Undocumented (illegal) immigrants, with a priority focus on those with any criminal record or criminal charges pending against them, and
  • Documented (legal) immigrants who have deportable crimes on their record.55

However, legal immigrants with inadmissible crimes could be affected by these orders in more roundabout ways.

The most obvious of these is that an inadmissible crime will prevent you from renewing your visa, adjusting your status, or entering the United States legally. As a result, it is easy for a legal immigrant to become an illegal immigrant after their current visa or legal status lapses as the result of a conviction for an inadmissible crime.

Under the Trump administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers are supposed to target illegal immigrants with any criminal conviction for deportation. If an inadmissible crime causes your legal status to lapse, then you may well find yourself among that targeted group.

Call Us for Help ...

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If you or a loved one is an immigrant charged with an inadmissible crime and you are looking to hire an attorney for representation, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group. We can provide a free consultation in our office or by phone. Learn more about our California immigration attorneys, and see the overview of our California immigration services

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 Nevada inadmissible crimes, please visit our page on Nevada crimes that make a person inadmissible to the United States.

Legal References:

  1. Immigration and Nationality Act ("INA") 212, 8 USC 1182 - (a) Classes of aliens ineligible for visas or admission [inadmissible crimes].
  2. See CEB California Criminal Law Practice & Procedure § 52.18: Grounds of inadmissibility [inadmissible crimes]. 
  3. See same.
  4. See INA 212, endnote 1 above [inadmissible crimes].
  5. See same.
  6. See same.
  7. 245 INA, 8 USC 1255 - Adjustment of status of nonimmigrant to that of person admitted for permanent residence [can be affected by conviction of an inadmissible crime]. 
  8. See INA 212, endnote 1 above [inadmissible crimes].
  9. See CEB California Criminal Law Practice & Procedure § 52.18: Grounds of inadmissibility [inadmissible crimes], endnote 2 above.
  10. 245 INA, 8 USC 1255 - Adjustment of status of nonimmigrant to that of person admitted for permanent residence [can be affected by conviction of an inadmissible crime], endnote 7 above.
  11. See CEB California Criminal Law Practice & Procedure § 52.18: Grounds of inadmissibility [inadmissible crimes], endnote 2 above.
  12. 237 INA, 8 USC 1227 - Deportable aliens [list of deportable crimes; contrast with inadmissible crimes]. 
  13. INA 237 (a) (1) (A) [deportable crimes]. 
  14. See INA 212, endnote 1 above [inadmissible crimes].
  15. 101 See INA, 8 USC 1101 - Definitions [for purposes of criminal immigration law].
  16. See Nunez v. Holder, (2010) 594 F.3d 1124, 1124 ("Once again we face the question of what is moral turpitude [for purposes of immigration law and criminal inadmissibility]: a nebulous question that we are required to answer on the basis of judicially established categories of criminal conduct. ")
  17. In re Craig, (1938) 12 Cal.2d 93, 97. 
  18. People v. Miles, (1985) 172 Cal.App.3d 474, 482.
  19. People v. Cavazos, (1985) 172 Cal.App.3d 589, 595.
  20. People v. Castro (1986) 186 Cal.App.3d 1211.
  21. People v. Gabriel, (2012) 206 Cal.App.4th 450, 459.
  22. People v. Parrish (1985) 170 Cal.App.3d 336, 349.
  23. People v. Boyd (1985) 167 Cal.App.3d 36, 45.
  24. People v. Rodriguez (1986) 177 Cal.App.3d 174, 178.
  25. People v. Zataray (1985), 173 Cal.App.3d 390, 400.
  26. People v. Johnson, (1991) 233 Cal.App.3d 425, 459.
  27. People v. Castro (1985), 38 Cal.3d 301, 317.
  28. People v. Mazza, (1985) 175 Cal.App.3d 836, 844.
  29. People v. Rodriguez (1986) 177 Cal.App.3d 174, 179.
  30. People v. Forster (1994) 29 Cal.App.4th 1746, 1756. 
  31. People v. Cavazos, endnote 19, above.
  32. People v. Sanders (1992) 10 Cal.App.4th 1268, 1274.
  33. Nunez v. Holder, (9th Cir. 2010) 594 F.3d 1124.
  34. People v. Solis, (1985) 172 Cal.App.3d 877, 883.
  35. INA 212 (a) (2) (A) (i) (I) [inadmissible crimes]. 
  36. See INA 237 (a) (2) (A) [deportable crimes; contrast with list of inadmissible crimes]. 
  37. INA 212 (a) (2) (A) (ii) (II) [inadmissible crimes]. 
  38. Penal Code 473 PC - Forgery [potentially inadmissible crime of moral turpitude]; punishment. 
  39. Long Beach criminal and immigration attorney Neil Shouse got his training in criminal law as a Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney. Having conducted over 70 criminal jury trials, he understands both the criminal court process and the incredibly complicated--and important--immigration consequences of how a non-citizen criminal defendant is represented. Mr. Shouse represents both citizen and non-citizen clients in matters ranging from DUI to homicide, in courthouses across Los Angeles and Orange counties.
  40. INA 212 (a) (2) (A) (ii) (I) [inadmissible crimes]. 
  41. Vehicle Code 10851 VC - Joyriding / grand theft auto [an inadmissible crime of moral turpitude]. 
  42. INA 212 (a) (2) (A) (i) (II) [inadmissible crimes]. 
  43. See same.
  44. See Nancy Morawetz, Rethinking Drug Inadmissibility, 50 Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 163, 168 (2008).
  45. See same, at 167 ("Because inadmissibility drug sweeps so broadly, it has the potential to exclude arbitrarily many worthy immigrants.")
  46. INA 212 (a) (2) (B) [inadmissible crimes]. 
  47. See same.
  48. See Penal Code 473 PC - Forgery [potentially inadmissible crime of moral turpitude]; punishment, endnote 38 above.

    See also Penal Code 489 PC - Grand theft; punishment. 

  49. See People v. Parrish (1985) 170 Cal.App.3d 336, 349; People v. Boyd (1985) 167 Cal.App.3d 36, 45.
  50. INA 212 (a) (2) (D) [inadmissible crimes]. 
  51. See same [no mention of a criminal conviction being required for immigration consequences].
  52. INA 212 (a) (2) (C) [inadmissible crimes]. 
  53. INA 212 (a) (1) (A) (iv) [inadmissible crimes].
  54. 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.
  55. Department of Homeland Security, Enforcement of the Immigration Laws to Serve the National Interest, Feb. 20, 2017. 




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