INA §212(a)(2)(A)(i)(I), 8 U.S.C. §1182(a)(2)(A)(i)(I)
Extremely minor crimes can make a foreign national inadmissible even if she was never convicted of the crime. In immigration law, crimes involving “moral turpitude” essentially refer to offenses that are intrinsically bad. Here’s one way the courts define it: the term, “refers generally to conduct which is inherently base, vile, or depraved, and contrary to the accepted rules of morality and the duties owed between persons or to society in general.”
Theft, for example, is a crime involving moral turpitude, because it involves dishonesty. Fishing without a proper license, by contrast, is a regulatory offense that does not involve conduct that is considered morally reprehensible.
Other examples include: assault, child abuse, domestic violence, certain alcohol-related offenses, robbery, sexual assault, kidnapping and – of course – murder.
A single conviction for a crime involving moral turpitude (CIMT) makes your fiancée inadmissible. Not only that, but if she admits to engaging in conduct that amounts to a CIMT then she is also inadmissible. For example, your fiancée can be found inadmissible if she admits to shoplifting, even if she was never arrested, charged or convicted for the crime.
Crimes committed as juveniles do not make someone inadmissible under the CIMT rule. This is so long as the offense occurred at least five years before the visa application.
There is an important exception to the CIMT rule called the “petty offense” exception. Under this rule, a person is still admissible so long as the offense: (1) had a maximum sentence of one year; and (2) the individual was actually sentenced for six months or less. Another exception applies where an offense was purely political, such as forms of civil disobedience.
How do you figure out if a particular offense qualifies as a CIMT? The answer is not necessarily easy. Some offenses, like theft, obviously do qualify. Other times you have to examine the actual criminal statute involved to assess the elements of the offense. Likewise, to know if the offense falls within the “petty offense” exception, you have to look at the actual criminal statute to understand the sentencing rules for the crime.
Even when immigration lawyers are presented with foreign criminal statutes we often will need the help of local counsel. Legal research tools vary from country-to-country – they are even different throughout the United States. So the immigration lawyer will often want to work in conjunction with a foreign lawyer to gather records from a criminal offense and analyze the statute to see how it fits the standards of U.S. immigration law. One of my colleagues refers to this process as the “brain surgery of immigration law,” and that’s not too much of an exaggeration.