Emigration (US) Repercussions of a Criminal Conviction

December 1, 2009

Our clients are often concerned about the effect a criminal conviction could have on their ability to travel to the United States. If you are convicted of a criminal offence in Canada, that conviction could have repercussions on any future plans to enter the United States. The US has strict entrance laws for foreign visitors with criminal records.

Under American law, foreigners may be denied entrance to the United States if they are deemed to be “inadmissible” by the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection. There are three categories of criminal behaviour that render an individual inadmissible.

Categories of Inadmissibility

  • Drugs The most common reason Canadians are denied entry to the United States is a prior drug-related conviction. Any violation relating to a controlled substance (even simple possession of marijuana) can be grounds for denying a foreigner entry to the US.
  • Crimes Involving Moral Turpitude The term “crimes involving moral turpitude” (CIMTs) refers to a large category of offences which are considered to be contrary to community standards or community morals. Though there is no definitive list of CIMTs, decades of immigration cases have led to the evolution of a non-exhaustive list of crimes which are always considered CIMTs. Some examples are fraud, arson, blackmail, burglary, embezzlement, theft, counterfeiting, perjury, kidnapping, manslaughter, murder, prostitution, and rape. Simple assault or assault with a weapon are not CIMTs. However, assault with intent to kill, rape, commit a robbery, or cause serious bodily harm is a CIMT as is assault with a dangerous weapon. For a good list of crimes that are CIMTs see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_turpitude.
  • Multiple Criminal Convictions If you have been convicted of two or more criminal offences you may be denied entry into the United States. This rule encompasses any type of offence regardless of whether it is a CIMT. The only exception to this rule is for political offences. Political offences are offences which an individual commits for a political purpose. Following the decision in Dunlayici, an offence only qualifies as a political offence if it is directed against the government and forms a part of an on-going or contemplated political struggle. This exception also tends to be limited to political offences which do not involve the use of violence.

These categories are so comprehensive that, in practice, almost any Canadian with a criminal record is likely ineligible for entry to the United States.

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A conviction for one of the offences listed above has the ability to render an individual inadmissible to the United States. However, U.S. law uses a very broad definition of the term conviction. U.S. law recognizes that an absolute discharge from a Canadian criminal court does not qualify as a conviction for immigration purposes. However, a Canadian conditional discharge is considered a conviction for US immigration purposes. This means that if you were charged with a criminal offence which falls into one of the categories of inadmissibility and you were granted a conditional discharge you are likely ineligible for entry into the United States. A conviction from a Canadian criminal court likewise qualifies as a conviction under U.S. immigration law and leads to inadmissibility.

Furthermore, under US immigration law, even if you are acquitted at trial or the charges against you are stayed, you may still be deemed inadmissible to the U.S.. This can happen in two different ways. First, if you admit to committing a crime but you are nonetheless acquitted by a Canadian court that acquittal is a deemed conviction for US immigration purposes. This could happen, for example, if you admitted to committing a crime at trial but were acquitted based on a successful claim under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The second way you may be deemed inadmissible, regardless of having been acquitted by a Canadian court, is if you admitted at trial to committing acts which constitute the essential elements of an offence. An acquittal (where you do not admit committing a crime or committing certain acts which constitute all the essential elements of a crime) does not render you inadmissible to the U.S.

Criminal Behaviour

There are some types of criminal behaviour which can render an individual inadmissible even if they have never been convicted of a crime. This occurs when an Immigration Officer knows or has reason to suspect that an individual has engaged in two specific types of criminal behaviour.

  • Controlled Substance Trafficking If an immigration officer knows or has reason to believe an individual is or has been trafficking in a controlled substance that person may be excluded under U.S. immigration law. This rule also applies to individuals who assist, abet, conspire or collude with others to engage in trafficking.
  • Prostitution and Commercial Vice If an immigration officer knows or has reason to believe that an individual is coming to the United States to engage in prostitution that person can be excluded. This rule also excludes individuals who have engaged in prostitution within the last 10 years. Individuals who attempt to procure or import prostitutes or who receive profits from prostitution (“pimps”) are also deemed inadmissible by this rule. Finally, this rule excludes individuals who an Immigration Officer believes to be traveling to the United States to purchase the services of a prostitute (“johns”).


There are a number of exceptions to the laws which govern this type of inadmissibility. For example, a Canadian conviction which, had it been committed in the U.S., would have been treated as an act of juvenile delinquency under U.S. federal guidelines will not count as a conviction for U.S. immigration purposes. This means that if you are convicted of a crime committed before your eighteenth birthday you likely will not be deemed inadmissible to the United States. There are also some circumstances where a single conviction for a CIMT will be overlooked for immigration purposes. If you have committed a crime and want more information on your eligibility to enter the United States visit the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection website at: http://www.cbp.gov/ or contact a local immigration lawyer.


If you have a criminal record which renders you ineligible for entry into the United States, you may be able to enter the U.S. if you obtain an entry waiver or a criminal pardon in Canada. If you are pardoned in Canada, the offence will not appear on your record when you attempt to enter the United States. If however, you have made an unsuccessful attempt to enter the United States, the offence will already be on record with the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, and you may have to obtain an entry waiver to enter the US.

The best way to make sure you are able to enter the United States is to avoid a criminal conviction. If you are facing criminal charges be sure to contact Kostman & Pyzer, Barristers, to ensure that a criminal accusation does not become an impediment to your ability to travel.

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