If you have a criminal record, you should think twice before filing any application with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Certain criminal convictions can have devastating effects on the outcome of your case. For example, any drug-related conviction can potentially preclude your from obtaining any lawful immigration status in the U.S. Even if the encounter was minor, it may still affect your case processing at USCIS. Therefore, you must discuss any and all criminal-related encounters you have had with a knowledgeable lawyer.
Often, applicants at USCIS do not disclose previous criminal records because arrests did not result in convictions, or convictions were subsequently dismissed through some type of post-conviction relief afforded under state law. However, USCIS does a background check any time you submit anything. So even if the case was never filed or resulted in a conviction, if you were arrested and fingerprinted, USCIS will want to know what the arrest resulted in. Remember that USCIS does a background check every time you submit an application, including green card renewals, applications for Naturalization, and DACA. So, if there were any changes since the last time you submitted something to USCIS, you will need to address the new criminal-related encounter.
Note that post-conviction relief is generally not recognized by USCIS. In California, individuals with criminal convictions will often get them expunged, or dismissed. Such dismissals are not recognized by USCIS and the underlying conviction is still considered. Some individuals also believe that misdemeanors do not affect their case, which is not true. Whether a misdemeanor or felony, USCIS considers factors such as the statute or reason for which you were arrested, what the term of imprisonment was, how much time was served, probationary period, etc. Depending on what application you are submitting, the factors USCIS considers will differ.
Criminal effects on your immigration case can be a complicated issue, even for immigration lawyers. It is important to maintain all your criminal records so that an experienced attorney can review them and assess any implications on your case. If you do not have your records, you can always do an independent fingerprint check with the FBI or the California Department of Justice. Every state will have different methods of obtaining your records. It is also important to speak to a knowledgeable immigration attorney at the onset of a criminal case, to assess any immigration implications a conviction could have. This can help avoid any future issues.