Updated: March 17, 2020
US immigration law renders ineligible for a visa and inadmissible to the US any alien who has been convicted of, or who admits having committed, or who admits committing acts which constitute the essential elements of, a crime involving moral turpitude (CIMT), with few exceptions. The issue of moral turpitude also arises when persons seek to enter the US on the Visa Waiver Program at a land border crossing, for the green I-94W form asks visitors whether they have ever been arrested or convicted for an offense or crime involving moral turpitude. The recently revised ESTA online registration questionnaire now phrases the question differently: ‘Have you ever been arrested or convicted for a crime that resulted in serious damage to property,or serious harm to another person or government authority?’ The online notes state ‘This question refers to crimes involving moral turpitude.’ For information on ineligibilities, waivers of ineligibilities and exceptions, see our article Washington, we have a problem! Ineligibilities and waivers.
The term ‘moral turpitude’ first appeared in US immigration law in 1891, which directed the exclusion from the United States of ‘persons who have been convicted of a felony or other infamous crime or misdemeanor involving moral turpitude.’ See the US Supreme Court decision of Jordan v. DeGeorge, 341 U.S. 223 (1951). It has never been defined by statute, but in the common-law tradition has been given meaning by courts that have construed it over the years. One widely-accepted definition is as follows:
Moral turpitude 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. [Citations omitted] Moral turpitude has been defined as an act which is per se morally reprehensible and intrinsically wrong, or malum in se, so it is the nature of the act itself and not the statutory prohibition of it which renders a crime one of moral turpitude.
Persons are potentially ineligible for a visa under Section 212(a)(2)(A)(i)(I) of the Immigration and Nationality Act if they are convicted of a statutory offense which involves moral turpitude. (The presence of moral turpitude, or the lack thereof, is determined according to United States law.) The US Department of State’s regulations provide as follows:
A conviction for a statutory offense will involve moral turpitude if one or more of the elements of that offense have been determined to involve moral turpitude. The most common elements involving moral turpitude are: (1) Fraud; (2) Larceny; and (3) Intent to harm persons or thing [sic].
Moreover, attempting to commit a CIMT; aiding and abetting the commission of a CIMT; being an accessory (before or after the fact) in the commission of a CIMT; and taking part in a conspiracy (or attempting to take part in a conspiracy) to commit a CIMT, are themselves CIMTs .
Crimes involving moral turpitude are grouped into three general categories. They are: (1) Crimes committed against property (for example, arson, blackmail, burglary, larceny, robbery, fraud, false pretences, theft, receiving stolen property); (2) crimes committed against governmental authority (for example, bribery, tax evasion, perjury, fraud against government functions); and (3) crimes committed against persons, family relationships, and sexual morality (for example, serious assaults, gross indecency, lewdness, kidnapping, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, murder, voluntary manslaughter, rape).
The presence or absence of moral turpitude is determined by the nature of the offense for which the alien was convicted, and not by the acts underlying the conviction. Furthermore, the degree of punishment meted out does not determine whether the crime is a CIMT; crimes punished by only fines or even less have still been held to be CIMTs.
The determination of whether a crime is a CIMT is a matter of US law, regardless of where the conviction took place. Whether or not a US or a foreign conviction is a conviction of a CIMT so as to render an alien ineligible for a visa or inadmissible to the US is often a complex question requiring careful legal analysis of the surrounding facts and the law. Readers who believe this may be an issue for them should consult a competent US immigration lawyer before applying for a visa or for Visa Waiver/ESTA admission to the United States.