THOMAS, Circuit Judge:
This case presents the question of how past criminal behavior should be considered in naturalization proceedings involving non-citizen veterans qualifying for special treatment under 8 U.S.C. § 1440.
Congress chose to reward noncitizens who had honorably served in the armed forces of the United States during certain wartime hostilities by relaxing preconditions for their naturalization. For these veterans, Congress eliminated the residency requirement, but provided that the applicant "shall comply in all other respects with the requirements of this subchapter...." 8 U.S.C. § 1440(b) (1996).
8 C.F.R. § 329.2(d) (1996).
Against this general legal backdrop, we consider the facts of this case. Petitioner Manual Augusto Santamaria-Ames is a native and citizen of Peru. He entered the United States at age nine in 1966, as a permanent resident alien. His father, mother, and four sisters all live in the United States. Santamaria-Ames is married to a United States citizen, with whom he has one child.
In 1974, Santamaria-Ames entered into active service in the army during the Vietnam War. His army career was not successful. He received three Article 15 violations and was counseled on fifteen occasions for disciplinary violations while on active duty. As a result, Santamaria-Ames was recommended for an early separation from the army due to unsuitability. After eight months and twenty-seven days of service, he was discharged from active service under honorable conditions.
Upon return to civilian life, Santamaria-Ames entered a life of crime. From his discharge through 1989, he had twenty arrests, five felony convictions and twelve misdemeanor convictions. He was convicted of battery, assault with a deadly weapon, burglary, possession of a controlled substance, being under the influence of a controlled substance, and felony hit and run.
Santamaria-Ames engaged in criminal activity even after deportation proceedings had been instituted against him. In 1980, he was arrested and convicted of burglary and felony burglary. As a result, the INS issued an Order to Show Cause in 1981 finding Santamaria-Ames to be deportable under 8 U.S.C. § 1251(a)(4). After being placed in deportation proceedings, he applied for a waiver of deportability pursuant to section 212(c) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, 8 U.S.C. § 1182(c). While such proceeding was pending before the Immigration Judge, Santamaria-Ames was convicted for possession of heroin and for felony hit and run. After the Immigration Judge denied his section 212(c) request for a waiver of deportability in 1986, Santamaria-Ames appealed to the Bureau of Immigration Appeals ("BIA"). While the appeal was pending, he was convicted of four misdemeanor vehicle code violations and for possession of a controlled substance. There is no record of Santamaria-Ames committing a crime since April 1989.
In February 1992, the BIA denied his appeal, holding that his "equities though outstanding d[id] not overcome his repeated convictions to warrant a grant of 212(c) relief." On appeal, we held the BIA did not abuse its discretion in denying section 212(c) relief.
In June 1992, Santamaria-Ames filed a Motion to Reopen and and Motion for Reconsideration of section 212(c) relief with the BIA. He contended that new facts made reopening necessary, including his claim that he was eligible for naturalization as a Vietnam veteran pursuant to 8 U.S.C. § 1440. The BIA denied the motion, holding that the deportation proceedings did not preclude Santamaria-Ames from pursuing naturalization and that there was no new evidence
Santamaria-Ames filed an application for naturalization on May 11, 1992. On January 19, 1993, the INS conducted an interview and examination of Santamaria-Ames. On January 9, 1995, he filed a motion for naturalization with the district court pursuant to 8 U.S.C. § 1447(b) because the INS had not yet issued a decision on Santamaria-Ames's application. The INS filed its Response to Petitioner's Motion for Naturalization on May 1, 1995, arguing that in light of his extensive criminal record Santamaria-Ames did not establish that for one year prior to filing his application he was, and continues to be, a person of good moral character as required by 8 C.F.R. § 329.2(d). The district judge denied the naturalization motion without a hearing on May 8, 1995, "for the reasons stated in District Counsel's Response to Petitioner's Motion for Naturalization." From this decision, Santamaria-Ames appeals.
The first question we must consider is whether, as Santamaria-Ames claims, the INS is precluded from examining character issues predating the section 329.2(d) one-year period.
Where the plain meaning of a statute is unambiguous, that meaning is controlling unless it is at odds with the drafters' intent. Almero v. INS, 18 F.3d 757, 760 (9th Cir.1994). Similarly, the plain meaning of language in a regulation governs unless that meaning would lead to absurd results. Reno v. National Transp. Safety Board, 45 F.3d 1375, 1379 (9th Cir.1995).
Both the plain meaning of 8 U.S.C. §§ 1440 and 1427, as well as 8 C.F.R. § 329.2(d), indicate that conduct prior to the one-year regulatory period may be examined. Because servicemen and servicewomen are not exempt from section 1427's good moral character requirements, 8 U.S.C. § 1427(e) applies to determinations of good moral character under section 1440. See 8 U.S.C. § 1440(b).
Section 1427(e) provides that in determining good moral character, the INS "may take into consideration as a basis for such determination the applicant's conduct and acts at any time prior to that period." When applied to section 1440, "that period" refers to the one-year regulatory period. Thus, the INS and the district court may consider conduct prior to the one-year regulatory period in determining whether an otherwise qualifying veteran has established the requisite good moral character to merit naturalization.
This conclusion is confirmed by INS regulations. Section 329.2 states that to be eligible for naturalization under section 1440, an applicant must comply "with all other requirements for naturalization as provided in part 316 of this chapter" with certain exceptions. 8 C.F.R. § 329.2(e). Those exceptions do not exempt the applicant from the requirements relating to good moral character in part 316. Specifically, part 316 states:
8 C.F.R. § 316.10(a)(2) (emphasis added). The regulatory period of one year for veterans must be substituted for the term "five years" in this regulation, but otherwise section 316.10 applies to section 1440.
We must next decide, as the INS argues, whether the INS and the district court may rely solely on pre-regulatory period conduct as the basis for denying naturalization. This is a question of first impression concerning section 1440 applications.
In Yuen, the petitioner applied for naturalization under (a) 8 U.S.C. § 724a (the predecessor to 8 U.S.C. § 1439 which permitted naturalization of persons who have served honorably in the military for periods of three years or more and who establish good moral character during such service), and (b) 8 U.S.C. § 724a (the predecessor to 8 U.S.C. § 1440, which at that time required that only present good moral character had to be established).
Id. at 495 (emphasis added).
Similarly, Judge Pope noted that under section 724a, the relevant inquiry was whether the petitioner has established present good moral character, but evidence of past misconduct was relevant to such inquiry. Id. at 496. Accordingly, Yuen reversed the district court's holding that petitioner "has failed to establish that he has been a person of good moral character" because the holding did not address his present moral character. The case was remanded for a hearing on that issue.
In accordance with Yuen, we hold that under 8 U.S.C. § 1440 and 8 C.F.R. § 329.2(d) the pertinent inquiry is whether the petitioner is presently of good moral character and has demonstrated good moral character from the year preceding the filing of his application to the present. Criminal conduct and other behavior prior to the one-year period may be examined. Whether the petitioner can establish that he has reformed and rehabilitated from this prior conduct is germane to the determination of whether he has established good moral character from the beginning of the one-year period to the present. Id.; see also Ralich v. United States, 185 F.2d 784, 787-788 (8th Cir.1950). If the petitioner demonstrates "exemplary conduct with every evidence of reformation and subsequent good moral character" from the beginning of the one-year regulatory period to the present, then his application cannot be denied based solely on his prior criminal record, although it is highly relevant to the ultimate determination. See Yuen, 184 F.2d at 495.
In this case, the district court erred by holding pre-regulatory period conduct preclusive to naturalization without affording Santamaria-Ames the chance to present evidence as to whether during the regulatory period he was, and continues to be "of good moral character, attached to the principles of the Constitution of the United States and favorably disposed toward the good order and happiness of the United States." 8 C.F.R. § 329.2(d). Given Santamaria-Ames's past criminal record and broken promises of rehabilitation, he faces a formidable task in sustaining his burden of proof. However, he cannot be denied that opportunity.
Thus, we conclude the district court erred by denying Santamaria-Ames the opportunity
Citing INS delay, INS statements in collateral proceedings and alleged misrepresentations to the district court, Santamaria-Ames urges that the INS be estopped from asserting he is not of good moral character. Mere file processing delay alone is insufficient to estop the government. INS v. Miranda, 459 U.S. 14, 18-19, 103 S.Ct. 281, 283, 74 L.Ed.2d 12 (1982). Estoppel is appropriate only when the government has committed "affirmative misconduct." Jaa v. United States INS, 779 F.2d 569, 572 (9th Cir.1986). In order to be estopped by a collateral judgment, the issue in contention must have been actually litigated and critical to the judgment. Town of North Bonneville v. Callaway, 10 F.3d 1505, 1508 (9th Cir. 1993). Application of these principles, coupled with an absence of proof of affirmative governmental misconduct and detrimental reliance in the record, are fatal to Santamaria-Ames's theory.
The judgment of the district court is vacated and this matter is remanded.
8 U.S.C. § 1440 (emphasis added).
8 U.S.C. § 1427 (emphasis added).