Citizenship and Naturalization
A person can attain U.S. Citizenship by birth or by naturalization. Naturalization is the process by which U.S. citizenship is conferred upon a foreign citizen or national after he or she fulfills the requirements established by Congress in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). Most permanent residents (green card holders) enjoy the right to remain in the United States without restrictions and can work for any employer. However, U.S. citizenship offers certain benefits that permanent residents do not receive.
(Links to headings below)
Citizenship through Birth
Benefits of Naturalization
General Requirements for Naturalization
Citizenship through Birth
In addition to the naturalization process, the United States recognizes the U.S. citizenship of individuals according to two fundamental principles: jus soli, or right of birthplace, and jus sanguinis, or right of blood.
1. Jus Soli (Right of Birthplace)
The 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees citizenship at birth to almost all individuals born in the United States or in U.S. jurisdictions. Citizenship by birth also includes persons born in certain territories under U.S. control. However, certain individuals born in the United States, such as children of foreign heads of state or children of foreign diplomats, do not obtain U.S. citizenship under this principle.
2. Jus Sanguinis (Right of Blood)
Certain individuals born outside of the United States become citizens through the citizenship of their parent that is a U.S. citizen. The requirements that need to be met are contained in the Immigration and Nationality Act.
Naturalization is the process by which U.S. citizenship is voluntarily acquired by a foreign citizen or national. Most naturalization applicants are required to take a test on English and Civics (U.S. government and history). When a person is naturalized, he/she agree to accept all of the responsibilities of being a U.S. citizen. They also agree to support the United States, its Constitution, and its laws. In return, the naturalized persons are rewarded with all the privileges that are part of U.S. citizenship.
Benefits of Naturalization
1. The Right to Vote
U.S. citizens have the right to vote in elections and participate in the American democracy. Citizenship bestows the privilege to participate in government by electing those who run the country and create the laws.
2. U.S. Passport and Travel
A U.S. citizen has the right to obtain an American passport. Travel also becomes more convenient as many countries have treaties with the United States that allows as a U.S. citizen to enter without a visa.
Becoming a permanent resident does not guarantee the right to remain in the United States. U.S. citizens are free to travel in and out of the U.S. at any time and for as long as they desire, whereas permanent residents can be found to have abandoned their permanent residence if they leave the country for an extended period of time. Currently, the USCIS has held that any absence of 180 days or longer could break the continuity of residence of a permanent resident to file for U.S. citizenship and the burden is on the applicant to show that they did not abandon their residency.
4. Avoid Removal or Deportation
Generally, permanent residents can remain in this country indefinitely unless they have violated a condition of their permanent residency. A person usually is in jeopardy of removal (deported) from the United States if they have engaged in illegal activity. Permanent residents remain subject to the jurisdiction of the USCIS and can be removed for criminal activity. A permanent resident that is convicted of a crime must not only defend himself or herself in criminal court but has to contend with immigration officials in Immigration Court as well.
5. Immigration for family members
U.S. citizens are given priority when petitioning for family members to come to the United States. U.S. citizens can petition for their spouse, son or daughter, parent and even their siblings. Permanent Residents can only petition for their spouse or unmarried children.
Petitioning U.S. citizens can avoid some the extended delays attributed to waiting for available visa numbers. The relative that wishes to immigrate must obtain an immigrant visa number that is based on the preference category in which they fall. Unfortunately, there are substantial waiting times for visa numbers in certain categories. U.S. citizens can either eliminate or reduce this waiting time. The immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, which include parents, spouses and unmarried children under the age of 21, do not have to wait for an immigrant visa number to become available and there is no limit to the number of visas issued each year.
Certain types of jobs require US citizenship, especially if they are with the federal government agencies.
7. Government Benefits
Certain public benefits are afforded to U.S. citizens only and permanent residents are restricted from access to such benefits. By becoming a citizen, one can ensure that they can avail themselves of all the government benefits in the United States.
8. Taxation Benefits
US citizens and permanent residents are not always treated the same for tax purposes. This is particularly true for estate taxes where U.S. citizens receive higher estate tax exemptions.
General Requirements for Naturalization
1. A period of continuous residence as a Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR) and physical presence in the United States
An applicant is eligible to file if, immediately preceding the filing of the application, he or she:
- Has been lawfully admitted for permanent residence;
- Has resided continuously as a lawful permanent resident in the U.S. for at least 5 years prior to filing. If married to U.S. citizen, the residency requirement is only 3 years but parties must have been married for at least 3 years without legal separation etc; and
- Has been physically present in the United States for at least 2½ out of the previous 5 years (absences of more than six months but less than one year shall 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)
2. Residence in a particular USCIS District prior to filing
A LPR must have resided within a state or district for at least 3 months prior to filing for naturalization
3. Ability to read, write, and speak English
Applicants for naturalization must be able to read, write, speak, and understand words in ordinary usage in the English language. Applicants exempt from this requirement are those who on the date of filing:
- Have been residing in the United States as an LPR for periods totaling 15 years or more and are over 55 years of age;
- Have been residing in the United States as an LPR for periods totaling 20 years or more and are over 50 years of age; or
- Have a medically determinable physical or mental impairment, where the impairment affects the applicant’s ability to learn English.
4. Knowledge and understanding of U.S. history and government
An applicant for naturalization must demonstrate a knowledge and understanding of the fundamentals of the history and of the principles and form of government of the United States. Applicants exempt from this requirement are those who, on the date of filing, have a medically determinable physical or mental impairment, where the impairment affects the applicant’s ability to learn U.S. History and Government
Applicants who have been residing in the U.S. as an LPR for at least 20 years and are over the age of 65 will be afforded special consideration in satisfying this requirement.
5. Good moral character
An applicant must show that he or she has been a person of good moral character for the statutory period prior to filing for naturalization. The USCIS is not limited to the statutory period in determining whether an applicant has established good moral character.
An applicant is permanently barred from naturalization if he or she has ever been convicted of murder. An applicant is also permanently barred from naturalization if he or she has been convicted of an aggravated felony as defined in section 101(a)(43) of the Act on or after November 29, 1990. A person also cannot be found to be a person of good moral character if during the last five years he or she:
- Has committed and been convicted of one or more crimes involving moral turpitude
- Has committed and been convicted of 2 or more offenses for which the total sentence imposed was 5 years or more
- Has committed and been convicted of any controlled substance law, except for a single offense of simple possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana
- Has been confined to a penal institution during the statutory period, as a result of a conviction, for an aggregate period of 180 days or more
- Has committed and been convicted of two or more gambling offenses.
- Is or has earned his or her principal income from illegal gambling
- Is or has been involved in prostitution or commercialized vice
- Is or has been involved in smuggling illegal aliens into the United States
- Is or has been a habitual drunkard
- Is practicing or has practiced polygamy
- Has willfully failed or refused to support dependents
- Has given false testimony, under oath, in order to receive a benefit under the Immigration and Nationality Act.
6. Oath of Allegiance and Attachment to the Principles of the U.S. Constitution
To become a citizen, one must take the oath of allegiance. By doing so, an 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.