What is a “Crime Involving Moral Turpitude”?

March 12, 2013

If an immigrant is convicted of a “crime involving moral turpitude” (CIMT), there are a number of negative repercussions for his immigration status. First, he is inadmissible to the United States, meaning that he may be denied entry if he leaves the country and tries to come back. He may be deportable, if he was convicted of a CIMT within 5 years of entry or of 2 or more CIMTs. He may also be ineligible for certain benefits, like permanent residence, or defenses to deportation, like cancellation of removal. Therefore, it is extremely important to avoid a conviction for a crime involving moral turpitude? But, what is a crime involving moral turpitude?

The answer is nobody knows for sure. There is no statute that defines this term. There is also no case that provides a specific definition of this term. The most the Board of Immigration Appeals has said is that it involves conduct that is inherently vile or depraved, or involves fraud or deceit. But, this does not make clear which specific crimes are considered vile or deceitful, and are therefore crimes involving moral turpitude. Two recent cases make this problem clear. In one case, Matter of Ortega-Lopez, the BIA found that a conviction for animal fighting, such as dog fighting or cock fighting, is a crime involving moral turpitude. The BIA admitted that no court had ever addressed this issue before. Nonetheless, it said that animal fighting is inherently base or vile conduct, and therefore a crime involving moral turpitude.

In a second case, Marin-Rodriguez v. Holder, the Seventh Circuit ruled that using a fraudulent Social Security card to obtain employment is a crime involving moral turpitude. Similar crimes, such as possessing a fraudulent Social Security card, are not crimes. Likewise, obtaining employment under false pretenses is not actually a crime (although using false documents is). Nevertheless, the court said that it is a CIMT because it involved conduct that was deceptive. “Moral turpitude” means depravity or wickedness. One can argue whether these crimes qualify for that definition. There are some people who would find that animal fighting is truly evil, but others might feel that it is wrong but not necessarily wicked or depraved. Still others might not find it wrong at all. As the BIA pointed out in the opinion, it was not even illegal in the United States until the 1970s, and of course it is legal and commonly practice in many countries around the world. Likewise, many people may feel that using a fake Social Security card to work may be against the law, but is not inherently evil, wicked or depraved. After all, as the court itself pointed out, is common, indeed ubiquitous behavior in our society today.In other words, reasonable people can disagree on whether these, and many other crimes, meet the definition of moral turpitude.

There are two problems though. First, the courts are making decisions that basically involve their personal judgment of vague, non-legal terms like “wicked” or “deceitful” on a case-by-case basis. This is not a good way to make laws that are supposed to be objective and consistent. Second, this way of making law does not provide the alien or his defense attorney adequate notice of what crimes are going to lead to severe immigration consequences. This is a violation of basic due process, which says that people should be on notice of what the law is before they are punished. The government should eliminate this category of crimes or find a different way of defining it that is more consistent and fair. In the meantime, immigrants need to be very aware that a crime that is not even mentioned in the immigration statutes could lead to serious problems.

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