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Bloggings: “No Man is Beyond Redemption” – A new spin on Good Moral Character; By Danielle Beach-Oswald

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Veterans



The discretionary and arbitrary nature of a finding of Good Moral Character in naturalization proceedings has been shown once again. Vernon Lawson, a decorated Vietnam veteran and Jamaican immigrant who spent 14 years in prison following the stabbing and killing of his wife, was granted US Citizenship in mid July following Federal Judge Denny Chin's decision that "No man is beyond redemption."


Lawson spent 13 months on tour in Vietnam with the U.S. Marines. During that time he served as an antitank assault man. Upon his return to the United States, Lawson was honorably discharged and received numerous honors and awards for his time spent fighting the Vietcong. Unfortunately, like many veterans, he became a victim of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Although he married in 1981, he and his wife eventually separated. After a failed attempt at reconciliation, Lawson stabbed his wife multiple times in the stomach. The night before, he engaged in heavy drinking and smoking marijuana laced with PCP.


Judge Chin attributed Lawson's behavior upon returning to the United States to his PTSD and the little help he received in trying to treat it. Lawson's first degree manslaughter conviction did not stop him from turning his life around. While in prison, he went on to receive treatment for his PTSD, in addition to receiving his college degree. Upon being paroled from prison, Lawson worked as a substance abuse counselor in the Bronx and was an active volunteer in his community.


His turn around in prison did not stop ICE officials from seeking removal proceedings in 2004. Judge Chin was highly critical of ICE in his decision and noted that the government's efforts were "mean-spirited."


This isn't the first time that courts have struggled to determine the Good Moral Character requirement for veterans seeking naturalization. The Good Moral Character requirement for those seeking naturalization is reduced to one year for certain veterans. Although immigration authorities are to make the decision of Good Moral Character primarily based on the veterans behavior during that one year period, criminal conduct prior to the one year period can be considered. For Vernon Lawson, his manslaughter conviction was considered but because of his reformation of behavior, he was able to demonstrate Good Moral Character.


The Good Moral Character requirements for naturalization for veterans remains overly complex. Recently in Moore v. James, the United States Eastern District Court of Virginia upheld USCIS's denial of naturalization for a Gulf War Veteran who was twice convicted of Possession with Marijuana with Intent to Distribute. Using a separate provision of code that veterans regularly use to seek naturalization, the Court noted that the provision in question "does not state that wartime veterans are excused from demonstrating good moral character."


Given the confusion that already exists on whether or not an individual seeking naturalization possesses Good Moral Character, clearer standards must be developed for veterans. Because a veteran convicted of manslaughter in New York was found to possess Good Moral Character while another convicted of possession with intent to distribute marijuana in Virginia did not shows how arbitrary an adverse finding of Good Moral Character can be. After these lawful permanent residents have served bravely for the Armed Forces, the least that our government can do is clearly elaborate what they must do to gain the priceless gift of American citizenship.


For more information on Good Moral Character, please see my article Good Moral Character - A Practitioner's Outline available from Immigration Briefings on August 15, 2011.


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