Basic Information for US Citizenship

Naturalization

“Naturalization” is the legal term for the process of acquiring United States citizenship after birth. In order to naturalize, a foreign citizen or national may apply for U.S. citizenship after he or she complies with the requirements established by Congress in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). The INA requires that applicants for citizenship establish that they qualify to become U.S. citizens based on residence and physical presence, good moral character, knowledge of English language, U.S. history and government, and loyalty to the United States.

Residence and Physical Presence

One of the legal requirements to become a citizen has to do with “residency” and physical presence in the United States. In order to qualify for citizenship, an applicant must be a permanent resident, i.e., the holder of a “green card” and have lived in the U.S. for a certain period of time. If the applicant became a permanent resident through marriage to a U.S. citizen, the applicant may apply for citizenship after residing in the U.S. for three years from the date on which permanent residency or conditional permanent residency was obtained. Otherwise, the applicant must have resided continuously in the U.S. for at least five years and been physically present in the U.S. for at least 30 months of those five years.

In order to qualify, the applicant may not have any single absence from the U.S. of more than one year. Absences of more than six months but less than one year are considered to disrupt the applicant’s continuity of residence unless the applicant can establish that he or she did not abandon his or her residence during such period. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) treats time spent in the service of the U.S. Armed Forces as time physically present in the U.S., even if the applicant was out of the country. Finally, the applicant must have resided within one state for at least three months.

Good Moral Character

Another requirement is that an applicant for citizenship be a person of “good moral character” during the required permanent residency period (although the CIS may also look at events that occurred prior to residency to determine character). Persons who have been convicted of aggravated felonies committed on or after November 29, 1990 or who have ever been convicted of murder are permanently barred from applying for citizenship on this basis. Any applicant with a criminal record should consult an immigration attorney prior to applying for citizenship because many crimes that make a permanent resident ineligible for citizenship make him or her deportable as well. A permanent resident applicant may thus find himself or herself in the position of having been denied citizenship and placed in deportation proceedings by the CIS. Most drug-related crimes, vice crimes, and crimes of fraud or dishonesty will prevent a finding of good moral character; however, not all crimes result in a permanent bar to citizenship, and not all crimes will prevent a finding of “good moral character.” Some less obvious items that the CIS may view as defiling good moral character include habitual alcoholism, drunk driving, and failure to pay child support.

Knowledge of English Language, U.S. History and Government

A test is administered at the time of the naturalization interview to determine the applicant’s knowledge of basic English, U.S. history and government. The test requires that the applicant write a sentence in English dictated by a CIS officer and answer a number of multiple-choice questions about American history and U.S. government. There are 10 questions asked during this multiple-choice, test and the applicant must answer at least 6 correctly. Questions include naming current and past presidents, giving the date of U.S. independence, etc. Applicants for naturalization must also be able to read, write, speak and understand basic English in order to qualify for citizenship.

There are certain exemptions for persons who are over a certain age and have been present in the United States for very long periods of time and for persons who demonstrate that they have a physical or mental impairment that affects their ability to learn English.

Loyalty to the United States

An applicant for citizenship is required to demonstrate that he or she is attached to the principles of the Constitution of the United States and well disposed to the good order and happiness of the United States. Once an applicant is approved for naturalization, he or she must take the oath of allegiance in a ceremony actually conferring citizenship. The applicant swears to support the Constitution and obey the laws of the U.S., renounce any foreign allegiance and/or foreign title, and bear arms for the Armed Forces of the U.S. or perform services for the government of the U.S. when required. In certain instances, where the applicant establishes that he or she is opposed to any type of service in the armed forces based on religious teaching or belief, the CIS will permit these applicants to take a modified oath.

Banned Individuals

Individuals who do not fulfill the requirements above may be ineligible to become a naturalized citizen. Additionally, there are certain classes of people who are automatically barred from naturalizing to the United States. Anarchists, individuals who advocate or teach opposition to organized government, people affiliated with the Communist Party or any other totalitarian party, persons who advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government, saboteurs, or persons who publish subversive material regarding the violent overthrow of government are all such classes of people. A person who has deserted the U.S. Armed Forces or has pending deportation proceedings against them is automatically barred from naturalizing to the United States.

Becoming a United States citizen carries a number of benefits with it, as well as responsibilities. Furthermore, remaining a permanent resident carries with it a number of risks of which many people are typically unaware.

Benefits of Being a U.S. Citizen

One of the most obvious benefits and responsibilities bestowed upon a U.S. citizen is the right and duty to vote and participate in the political process that shapes the nation. Additionally, a naturalized U.S. citizen is entitled to all the benefits of traveling abroad with a U.S. passport, including relative freedom of movement throughout the world without having to comply with burdensome visa requirements. Serving on juries is another responsibility of citizenship.

Some of the greatest benefits for naturalized citizen are immigration benefits. For example, only U.S. citizens are permitted to petition for their parents, siblings or for their married children. U.S. permanent residents are not. Also, only a certain number of immigrant visas are available each year for the spouses and minor children of U.S. permanent residents (if they were not included in the petition which gave the permanent resident his or her status originally). Because there are so many petitions filed for family members of permanent residents each year, there is a waiting list before a visa is available. As of December 2003, the State Department is processing petitions for spouses and minor children of permanent residents filed on November 15, 1998 (except for nationals of Mexico, for whom the State Department is processing petitions filed on April 8, 1996). For those children who have turned 21 while waiting several years for a visa to become available, their petitions fall in priority. As of December 2003, the State Department is processing petitions for unmarried adult children of permanent residents filed on May 1, 1995 (except for nationals of Mexico, for whom the State Department is processing petitions filed on December 1, 1991).

By contrast, the spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens are entitled to an immigrant visa immediately, so there is no wait list at all. The unmarried adult sons and daughters of U.S. citizens are generally on a shorter waiting list than those of permanent residents. As of December 2003, the State Department is processing petitions for unmarried adult children of citizens filed on July 15, 2000 (except for nationals of Mexico and the Philippines, for whom the State Department is processing petitions filed on Oct. 15, 1994 and Sept. 15, 1989, respectively.

Risks of Staying a “Permanent Resident”

“Permanent” does not always mean “forever.” Remaining a “permanent resident” in the United States carries with it hidden risks. Many immigrants do not realize that permanent residents may, under certain circumstances, be stripped of their right to remain in the United States and be removed to their home countries or refused entry to the United States upon return from abroad. Due to changes in immigration laws that occurred in 1996, many permanent residents convicted of crimes that are classified as “aggravated felonies” since coming to the United States became subject to removal (the new term for deportation) even if they have served their sentences. The CIS definition of “aggravated felony” includes many non-violent crimes, e.g., shoplifting and check kiting. The law also was made retroactive, so long-term permanent residents who have criminal histories, even from decades ago, can be deported. In addition, the far-reaching 1996 laws severely limited the ability of immigration judges to prevent deportation of permanent residents facing removal under such circumstances, even if their spouse, parents or children are U.S. citizens.

The same crimes that make a permanent resident “deportable” can also result in an unexpected refusal of permission to enter the country when returning from a trip abroad. For example, in 1997, a permanent resident was returning from a visit to his home country, the Dominican Republic, when U.S. immigration agents realized that in 1974, at the age of 19, he had had consensual sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend and had been arrested for statutory rape. The permanent resident, who had no other criminal history, had received 1 year of probation on the rape conviction in 1974. Under the new laws, however, the U.S. immigration agents considered it a serious enough crime to keep him from returning to the United States. He spent six months in an immigration prison, and although a judge later dismissed his immigration case the judge was in no way required by the law to do so.

In conclusion, anyone who is a permanent resident of the United States should seriously consider applying for citizenship if he or she wishes to continue living in the United States. To apply for citizenship, please contact us today.

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