Naturalization Requires Good Moral Character

By: Lawrence P. Lataif, J.D., LL.M  and Danielle E. Huntley, Esq.  

On July 7, 2011, a remarkable federal court case in the Southern District of New York, Lawson v. USCIS, coverage here, illustrates how complicated naturalization can be. Vernon Lawson was ordered naturalized by Circuit Judge Chin over the good moral character arguments raised by USCIS’ lawyers.


To qualify for naturalization, a legal permanent resident (LPR) must meet various criteria relating to age, length of residence in the US, knowledge of English and US government and good moral character for the five years prior to filing. The case got to federal district court by virtue of a statute recognizing that the right to US citizenship is precious. Therefore, the federal courts have jurisdiction to conduct a de novo review of any naturalization application denied by USCIS.


Lawson’s case is notable because in 1986 he was convicted of first-degree manslaughter for the death of his wife while under the influence of drugs and alcohol. (NB - Lawson would have been statutorily excluded from naturalization if the conviction had occurred after November 29, 1990. 8 USC §1101(f)(8)) At age 14, Vernon Lawson came to the United States as an LPR from Jamaica. He eventually enlisted in the Marines and served in the Vietnam War. When he returned from combat, Lawson was suffering from PTSD and was addicted to drugs and alcohol. While incarcerated for manslaughter, Lawson was an exemplary inmate, completing three degrees and mentoring other inmates. After being paroled in 1999, he began working as a substance and alcohol abuse counselor in a New York City hospital, while taking care of his elderly mother. Judge Chin ruled that the extent of Lawson’s rehabilitation overcame the violent criminal conviction of manslaughter and ordered USCIS to grant Lawson US citizenship.


While most immigrants seeking naturalization are not trying to overcome a criminal conviction on the scale of first-degree manslaughter, even most “straightforward” cases require planning and nuanced responses. Effective planning before a naturalization filing can make all the difference between disaster and citizenship. Lawson’s “victory” in court came 51 years after Lawson arrived in the US.