Becoming a United States citizen is extraordinarily rewarding, especially in times like these. For lawful permanent residents, it means you virtually never again have to worry about being deported, or traveling to other countries and residing abroad.
As a U.S. citizen, you will virtually never have to worry about deportation from the United States, no matter what happens. Many don’t realize that lawful permanent residents can be deported, for various reasons. In fact, the list of grounds of deportability run several pages long. The reasons a green card holder can be deported include criminal convictions, false claims to citizenship, fraud in obtaining a green card, falsification of documents, domestic violence, unlawful voting, drug possession, and abandonment of residence.
Sadly, many of our clients have been green card holders that commit minor infractions and end up facing deportation.
Becoming a United States citizen, through the process of naturalization, is a safeguard against deportation. U.S. citizens, except in very rare instances, cannot be removed.
If you’re seeking a peace of mind for you or your family members, you should strongly consider becoming a U.S. citizen.
Many green card holders wish to spend significant time living abroad, sometimes in their native countries. This too can lead to deportation from the United States. If immigration authorities discover that you no longer have the intent to make the United States your home, you can be denied entry back into the United States.
Many green card holders falsely believe that returning to the United States every 6 months is a bulletproof strategy for keeping their green cards. This is not the case. Many green card holders lose their green cards because they have been found to have abandoned their residence, even though they have returned to the U.S. within 6 months.
If you want the freedom to travel and live abroad without losing your green card, the safest course is to become a U.S. citizen by applying for naturalization.
U.S. citizens are eligible for many federal, state, and local jobs that green card holders are not. In addition, some government scholarships and financial aid are only given to U.S. citizens. To give you and your children better economic opportunities it often makes sense to become a U.S. citizen.
Permanent residents can only file green card petitions for their spouse, children, and unmarried sons and daughters. Citizens get to petition for additional categories of relatives, including married sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, and fiances.
Note: There are circumstances in which becoming a citizen can negatively impact petitions that have already been filed or that will be filed soon. These are scenarios that we will be sure to discuss with you in a consultation.
For most individuals, becoming a U.S citizen means applying for naturalization. (Some people can automatically become citizens, but only in very limited circumstances.) Before you begin the naturalization process, you should know the basic requirements.
First, you must be a lawful permanent resident, or green card holder, for a certain period of time. For green card holders that obtained their residency through a U.S. citizen spouse, you need to wait 3 years before applying. For all other green card, expect to wait 5 years.
Note that green card holders who received their green cards through their U.S. citizen spouses can only apply after 3 years if they are still living in “marital union” with the spouse. If you’re separated or divorced from the U.S. citizen spouse, then you’ll have to wait 5 years.
Technically, you can apply for naturalization three months before the waiting period ends. If you’re required to wait 5 years, you can apply at 4 years and 9 month. If you’re required to wait 3 years, you can apply at 2 years and 9 months.
Second, you must demonstrate good moral character in the preceding 3- or 5- year period. What is good moral character? Ultimately, the adjudicating USCIS officer gets to decide. Nonetheless, the immigration laws contain several automatic bars to a finding good moral character during the lookback period.
Note: A conviction for an aggravated felony that occurred after November 29, 1990 will result in a permanent bar to finding a good moral character.
Third, you must meet certain residence and physical presence requirements. You must have “continuously resided” in the U.S. in the past 5 years. An absence from the United States of more than 6 months may cause a break in your residence. You also must have been physically present in the United States for at least half of the 5- or 3- year period.
The naturalization process begins by filing an N-400, Application for Naturalization. The fees are $725 for anyone under the age of 75.
After filing the naturalization application, expect to wait several months for an interview at the local USCIS field office. At the interview, a USCIS officer will review your application, confirm the information is correct, and evaluate your eligibility for citizenship. In addition, the officer will administer up to two tests, a civics test and an English test.
Our law firm provides our clients study materials for these exams at no cost.
Not everyone is required to take these exams. If you’re 50 years or older (at the time of filing) and have been a green card holder for 20 years, you are not required to take the English test, but still must take the Civics exam. If you’re 55 years or older (at the time of filing) and have had your green card for at least 15 years, then you need not take the English test — only the Civics exam. If you’re 65 years or older, and have had your green card for 20 years, you’re exempt from the English exam and will get special consideration on the Civics portion.
Also, if you suffer from a medical disability, you can receive special consideration on either exam. However, the disability must be proven and well-documented by submitting a Form N-648.
Several issues can arise in naturalization cases. Our law firm takes great care at the outset of a case to anticipate and resolve problems that could arise in the process of obtaining citizenship.
Here is a non-exhaustive set of issues that we zero in on in naturalization and citizenship case:
We look at all prior criminal history, even outside of the 5-year period of required good moral character. A finding of bad moral character can be made for offenses committed more than 5 years ago if USCIS determines that it’s so serious that it continues to reflect on one’s character.
We also want to know if you’re still on probation for an offense, even if it was committed more than 5 years ago. If you’re still on probation, parole or suspended sentence, the USCIS officer is not permitted to approve your citizenship application. However, if you complete the probation, even in the past 5 years, you will not automatically be denied citizenship.
With respect to offenses that were committed in the past 5 years, we exercise great scrutiny. USCIS officers have found persons to lack good moral character for even morally-neutral offenses, like possession of drugs. As a result, our law firm weighs these situations on a case-by-case basis. Even where a recent crime has been committed, we have sometimes had success arguing that there were “extenuating circumstances” and rehabilitation.
Finally, if you were convicted of an aggravated felony after November 29, 1990, you will be permanently ineligible for naturalization.
USCIS can deny your citizenship application if you owe back taxes. The first important task is to fully disclose to USCIS that you’re behind on taxes. In fact, one of the questions on the N-400 asks if you owe federal, state, or local taxes.
Second, if you have overdue taxes, you should work out a payment plan with the IRS to get back on track and then provide this proof at, or prior to, your naturalization interview.
You can also be denied citizenship if you owe child support. Again, USCIS has discretion, meaning that you have some leeway. If you can demonstrate that you’re attempting in good faith to repay and overdue child support, your application can still be approved. If you find yourself owing child support, it’s important to work with an immigration attorney to document your efforts to get in compliance.