How Traffic Offenses Cause Immigration Issues

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By: Bill Henry
PublishedAug 9, 2022
6 minute read

One of the hardest things about being an immigrant is feeling vulnerable. You can get a place to stay, find a job, have all your documents in order — and still worry about what might happen if you get pulled over for a traffic violation. In this article, we discuss how traffic offenses cause immigration issues.

In This Guide:

Bottom Line

Most traffic citations won’t impact your ability to stay in the United States or apply for citizenship. However, some serious traffic offenses can, and you need to know what to do if you’re ever charged with one.

If You’re an Immigrant with a Recent Traffic Arrest, Get an Attorney 

If you’ve had any interaction with police that involved handcuffs and being fingerprinted, then you’ve got a problem, especially if you’re an immigrant. A regular public defender might not consider the damage a guilty plea could do to the life you’re trying to build as an immigrant in the United States. That’s why you need an immigration attorney who also understands criminal defense. We can help you through this. Call 303-688-0944 for your case assessment. Si gustarÍa hablar con nosotros en español, por favorllámenos al 720-359-2442.

traffic offenses immigration issues

Can Traffic Tickets Hurt My Immigration Status?

Traffic tickets can hurt your immigration status. But in most situations, they don’t have to.

Many traffic citations are considered minor and can be satisfied by paying your fine on time, which is before the scheduled court date on the ticket.

However, each citation will stay on your record for seven years in Colorado. It will be important to understand this when applying for citizenship or a green card renewal.

If you’ve recently been cited for speeding, failing to stop, or any minor infraction, pay your fine and move on. A citation won’t suddenly turn into a criminal offense the next time you apply for naturalization or immigration benefits. However, a pattern of repeated traffic offenses, even if they are minor, could lead to your license getting suspended.

Serious Offenses Can Cause Immigration Issues

Not all traffic violations are minor. Several are at least misdemeanor crimes and will hinder you from renewing your visa or green card, or applying for naturalization. These include:

  • driving under the influence
  • hit and run
  • reckless driving that results in injury or property damage
  • any other violation with the potential to injure or harm someone else

Getting charged with any of the above doesn’t just put you at the mercy of the criminal justice system. It could flag the attention of immigration officials, such as ICE (Immigration and Cultural Enforcement), doubling the amount of trouble you’re in.

Even if you are able to resolve the criminal matter without going to jail, the serious violation becomes part of your record and could hinder future attempts to apply for citizenship with your N-400 or renew immigration benefits.

Which Tickets Do I Have to Report on My N-400? 

When applying for citizenship, report all moving violations, no matter how minor they are.

When the USCIS runs a background scan of your record, it’s not necessarily looking for traffic tickets. It’s checking for past criminal conduct and other serious violations. These could include misdemeanor traffic crimes like driving under the influence, driving on a suspended license, or reckless driving.

However, if you have been ticketed for minor violations like speeding or making an improper lane change and failed to list it on your N-400, that could appear dishonest.

The Standard of Good Moral Character

Failing to list even minor traffic citations will count as giving false testimony under oath, violating the ‘Good Moral Character’ clause of the Code of Federal Regulations, which states:

An applicant for naturalization bears the burden of demonstrating that, during the statutorily prescribed period (5 years) , he or she has been and continues to be a person of good moral character. This includes the period between the examination and the administration of the oath of allegiance. 8 CFR § 316.10 

Answering Question No. 16 

The application form for naturalization, N-400, has a Good Moral Character section on it. Question No. 16 specifically asks: “Have you ever been arrested, cited, or detained by any law enforcement officer (including USCIS or former INS and military officers) for any reason?”

That’s where to answer ‘yes’ if you have had any traffic violations in the U.S.

Automatic and Discretionary Disqualifications 

Many serious crimes, such as murder or drug trafficking, can automatically disqualify your citizenship or green card application. Certain other crimes are left to the discretion of the USCIS officer reviewing your file.

For example, a crime such as driving under the influence can get you labeled as a ‘habitual drunkard,’ which is grounds for denial under the standard of good moral character.

What About Parking Tickets?

There is no need to list parking tickets on your N-400 or any application for immigration benefits since these are not moving violations.

Can I Be Deported Over a Traffic Offense?

No immigrant with a valid visa or lawful resident status (green card) can be deported over a traffic offense unless it’s attended by a more serious crime, and the immigrant is convicted. Even then, the possibility of deportation depends on the severity of the crime, the immigrant’s prior history, and the circumstances of their case.

But even when convictions and guilty pleas for such offenses do not lead to deportation, they can weigh heavily against you when applying for benefits or filing your N-400 for naturalization.

They can even come back to haunt you years later, especially if you leave the United States and try to re-enter with serious crimes on your record.

What if I am Undocumented?

Law enforcement’s attitude toward residents who hold no legal status varies from state to state and tends to shift one way or the other with prevailing political winds.

Across the U.S., undocumented immigrants have been deported after being stopped for traffic offenses. Bloomberg News reported that in 2019 alone, 20,000 immigrants were deported after being convicted of a traffic-related offense.

However, the stated deportable crime usually was not the traffic violation but the undocumented status of the immigrant(s) inside the car.

In states where undocumented residents cannot legally obtain a license, the added charge of driving without one has been used to make them even more vulnerable.

Undocumented Residents Can Get a Colorado Driver’s License

In Colorado, undocumented residents cannot be deported for minor traffic violations, even after law enforcement becomes aware of their status.

The state has even passed laws such as The Colorado Road and Community Safety Act (RCSA) which allows undocumented immigrants to receive a state driver’s license, permit, or identification card. It gives undocumented residents the same privileges as a citizen while expecting the same responsibilities, such as obeying traffic laws and carrying car insurance.

The RCSA also makes clear that any holder of a Colorado driver’s license “may not be discriminated against in any way, nor can your driver’s license be held against you to determine your citizenship or immigration status.”

What Should I Do if the Police Pull Me Over?

Getting stopped and questioned by the police can be incredibly stressful. The last thing you want to do in such a situation is panic or act out in an aggressive way. That can only make it worse.

Here are some important tips to remember if you are pulled over:

  • Stay calm. Don’t run. Don’t argue, resist, or antagonize the police. Even if you’ve done nothing wrong, or feel the police are violating your rights, remain calm.
  • Keep your hands open and where the police can see them.
  • Be cooperative, but say no more than necessary
  • Step out of the car if the officer asks you to
  • Provide your license, registration, and proof of insurance if asked to

Remember that the police cannot search you or your belongings without your consent. They can pat your clothing to make sure you don’t have a weapon. You have the right to refuse consent to any other searches, but do not physically resist.

What if I am Placed Under Arrest?

However frustrated or scared you are, do not resist arrest, even if you believe it’s a mistake. Tell the police you wish to remain silent and ask for a lawyer. Once you have been placed under arrest, you are not required to answer any questions before you talk to a lawyer.

If you cannot afford a lawyer, request a free public defender. If you’re being charged with a crime punishable by more than a fine, you have the right to a lawyer.

What if I Get Detained by ICE for a Traffic Violation?

If you are arrested and handed over to ICE, they cannot hold you for longer than 48 hours without taking some form of action, such as initiating deportation proceedings. If 48 hours pass and ICE hasn’t taken further action, they must release you.

Talk Only to Your Lawyer 

Never sign any form, answer any question, enter a plea, or make any decision without your lawyer’s advice. Do not discuss your immigration status with anyone but your lawyer. Any statements you make to anyone but your lawyer can be used to file criminal charges against you.

Speak to a Criminal Immigration Attorney 

The intersection of criminal justice and immigration enforcement is a place you don’t want to be after getting charged with a traffic offense. If the police arrest you, get a Colorado criminal immigration attorney. Our legal team understands that pleading guilty for a lighter sentence probably won’t make an immigrant’s life easier. We don’t fight just for a lighter sentence. We fight for you. Call 303-688-0944 for your case assessment, o si gustarÍa hablar con nosotros en español, por favor llámenos al 720-359-2442.

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