Citizenship and Naturalization

The process of obtaining U.S. citizenship is called “naturalization”. Immigrants can obtain U.S. citizenship in several ways, but the process may not be so simple.

A person born in the United States is already a U.S. citizen. People born in other countries can often obtain U.S. citizenship if their parents are U.S. citizens (also known as derivative citizenship) or through naturalization (applying for U.S. citizenship by filing Form N-400). 

Steps to apply for naturalization:

First Step: Be a U.S. legal permanent resident/green card holder. In general, only legal permanent residents can apply for naturalization.  

In order to apply for naturalization the applicant should:

– Be at least 18 years old,

– Be U.S. legal permanent resident/greencard holder,

– Meet all other legal requirements. 

How to get a Green Card?

This can ultimately be one of the biggest obstacles when it comes to naturalizing in the U.S., since not all immigrants meet the requirements to obtain lawful permanent residency (a green card). To become a lawful permanent resident or green card holder, the foreign national applicant must meet several legal requirements. The applicant must not be inadmissible under Section 212 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). Section 212 of the INA lists several grounds of inadmissibility that can prevent the applicant from gaining permission to enter or remain in the U.S. If an applicant is found to be inadmissible, often times a waiver of inadmissibility can be filed. See the Waivers of Inadmissibility section for more information. 

To apply for a green card, you should be eligible in one of these categories:

1. Green Card Through Family Based Petitioning 

Family members of U.S. citizens or green card holders,

– Fiancés (and their children) of a U.S. citizen,

– Widowers of a U.S. citizen,

– Victims of extreme cruelty or abuse by a U.S. citizen or green card holder,

Non-immediate family categories may be eligible for a green card but the process can often involve a very long waiting time (the waiting period can exceed 20 years).

2. Through A Job or Investing 

– If you are an immigrant worker with extraordinary abilities for the sciences, arts, education, business or sports, prominent researcher, manager of a company or if you have certain special job skills. For example-Doctors with National Interest.

– Being an immigrant investor: Invest at least one million dollars in a new commercial company in the United States and provide full-time work to at least 10 qualified employees.

3. Special Immigrant

This category applies to religious workers, special immigrant youth, representatives of international media or employees (and their families) of an international organization. In the case of Afghan or Iraqi special immigrants, they must have been Afghan or Iraqi translators for the United States government, have been employed by or for the United States government in Iraq, on or after March 20, 2003, for at least one year, and have been employed by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

4. Refugee or Asylee Status 

Immigrants might be eligible for refugee status if they have suffered persecution on the basis of race, religion, national origin or because they belong to certain social groups or have certain political opinions, according to the USCIS.

To apply for asylum in the United States, you must “meet the refugee definition,” be in the United States, or apply at a United States port of entry.

Asylees can usually apply for a green card one year after asylum was granted. 

5. Victims of Human Trafficking and Qualifying Crimes (T or U Status)

U Visa: Immigrant victims of certain crimes who have been helpful in a criminal investigation or prosecution may qualify for a visa that can lead to a green card.

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) allows an abused spouse or child of a U.S. Citizen or Lawful Permanent Resident or an abused parent of a U.S. Citizen to self-petition for lawful status in the United States, receive employment authorization, and access public benefits. VAWA also has a provision for abused parent’s of U.S. citizens. VAWA often leads to a green card. 

T Visa: Human trafficking survivors may be eligible for lawful status, employment authorization, and a potential path to permanent residency. 

6. Other Cases

Citizens of Liberia who have been in the country continuously since 2014.

If you are part of the diversity visa program, by the Cuban adjustment law, among others.

The S visa is a visa that allows persons who are witnesses or informants to assist law enforcement and provide information about a criminal organization in the U.S. In some cases, the S visa can lead to a green card. 

After the Green Card

If you already have a green card, the naturalization process has other steps that someone must take into account to become a citizen. The applicant must:

– be a permanent resident for five years before the application for naturalization is filed (there is a 3 year exception for individuals married to U.S. citizens),

– Have lived at least three months in the same district or state where the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has jurisdiction, for at least three months before submitting the application,

– Have been physically present in the United States for at least 30 months in the last five years before applying for naturalization,

– Reside continuously in the U.S. from the application date until the naturalization authorization,

– Be able to read, write and speak English and have knowledge of U.S. history and government,

– Be a person with “good moral conduct”, who respects the law, the Constitution and has a good disposition for good order, happiness and well-being of the country. The applicant should also ensure that they haven’t engaged in actives which render them deportable from the United States, for example, voting in a U.S. election. Certain acts, even innocent mistakes,  can have severe immigration consequences which can cause someone to be ineligible from U.S. citizenship and deported from the United States. As a result, it is very important to consult with an experienced immigration attorney before submitting an application for U.S. citizenship. 

It is necessary to attend an interview to naturalize (obtain citizenship). During this interview, the applicant must pass an exam, which consists of a civics test and an English test. The civics test consists of 20 questions about United States history and government and the English test has three parts: speaking, reading, and writing. The English test is mandatory unless the applicant applied for a disability exemption or is over 50  years of age and has met other requirements.

The applicant will also be asked other security related questions and their initial green card application is usually scrutinized. If the immigrant officer determines the applicant’s green card was issued in error, the applicant could lose their legal permanent resident status instead of obtaining their citizenship. Therefore, it is very important to speak to an experienced immigrant attorney before applying for citizenship. 

After passing the exam and being approved, an oath ceremony is required to become a U.S. citizen. The certificate of Naturalization is issued at the Oath Ceremony. 

After you are a naturalized U.S. citizen, you have the right to receive U.S. protection, to vote in elections, to live permanently in the country, and obtain a U.S. passport. You also have an obligation to obey the rules of the United States.