All information and views expressed in this article are the solely those of Haynes Novick Immigration. The Wolf Group does not necessarily endorse, support, or agree with the views expressed in the article.
A front page article in the Washington Post some years ago told the heartbreaking story of Lundy Khoy, a 31-year old Cambodian green card holder who came to the U.S. as a refugee when she was a baby but never became a U.S. citizen. When Lindy was 19 she made a stupid mistake: she was arrested with some ecstasy her boyfriend gave her and then charged and convicted with possession with intent to distribute. She served three months in jail and was placed on probation for three years. End of story for most, but not Khoy. Because she was a lawful permanent resident and not a U.S. citizen, the criminal conviction triggered unimaginable immigration consequences: Khoy has been fighting a 12-year deportation battle and the prospect of being sent to a country she has never even visited.
Forget about voting for President – which, by the way, is a really good reason to become a U.S. citizen – or access to federal jobs and scholarships. You can’t be deported if you’re a U.S. citizen. Period. Had Khoy became a U.S. citizen years ago, she would be getting on with her life instead of facing ongoing nightmare for her and her family.
So, why do people wait or not apply at all? Procrastination, cost and an emotional bond to their home country. Understandable, but still, don’t wait. Most countries permit dual citizenship; the fees are not that high – not much more than car insurance for one year; and the consequences of risking deportation for a stupid human mistake enormous. Also, U.S. citizens can petition for their close family members (some of whom a green card holder cannot) and faster.
So, now you know you should apply for U.S. citizenship, but how do you do apply?
Step One: Determine if you’re eligible.
To apply for citizenship, you have to be:
- at least 18 years of age or older;
- a permanent resident (green card holder) for at least 5 years (three years if married and living with a U.S. citizen) and actual physical presence in the U.S. for half of that time;
- living within a state for at least 3 months prior to filing the application;
- a person of good moral character; and
- able to read, write, and speak basic English.
Two eligibility issues seem to cause the most concern for potential applicants: how much travel outside of the U.S. is permitted and the meaning of good moral character. First, since many applicants for citizenship frequently travel abroad, capturing all time out of the country seems onerous. It need not be. Look through your old passports for entry stamps. Look at your I-94 travel record maintained by CBP. Make a list of travel times. Start with estimates. If you have sufficient time in the U.S., estimates even on the application can be okay.
Second, the meaning of good moral character for U.S. citizenship covers a wide variety of behavior. Many applicants are concerned about applying if they have had any law violation. They should be. But, some violations don’t count. For example, minor traffic infractions don’t disqualify someone from citizenship, but they should be listed on the application. And, an arrest may not delay the filing of for citizenship, but being of probation can. Some people simply can’t remember or never fully understood what happened many years ago. If you are unsure of your criminal history, request an FBI criminal background check and obtain a copy of your record.
If you have had any criminal arrest or encounter, you should consult with an immigration lawyer before applying for citizenship even if you plan to prepare and file the application on your own.
Step Two: Get the Documents You Need and File.
If you have a straightforward case, you can do it on your own. You will need the following minimum documents in order to file for U.S. citizenship:
- Form N-400. The form is available online at uscis.gov and is free.
- two passport-sized color photographs with your name and “A-number” written lightly in pencil on the back of each photograph. Because pencils don’t work that great on these pictures, use a sharpie pen.
- a copy of both sides of your permanent resident card;
- a check or money order made payable to “U.S. Department of Homeland Security” for the filing fee. Double check the fee on the USCIS web site because the fee changes and it must be correct.
Other documents must be submitted if the application is based on marriage and residence with a U.S. citizen after three years; special rules apply if naturalization is based on military service.
Mail in the application. Before you mail your application and documents, make a complete copy of everything. Check the instructions online to determine which USCIS office to mail your application. And, finally, use federal express or express mail so to that you can track your package.
Step Three: Biometrics.
In 3-4 weeks after USCIS receives your application, you will receive a biometrics appointment notice instructing you to go to your local Application Support Center and have your digital fingerprints, photo and signature taken. Yes, the fingerprints are for a criminal background check, and USCIS will know everything even if the incident happened 20 years ago. So, if it happened – even if the charges were dismissed – list it on your application. Many applicants are denied naturalization for failure to list an arrest or charge when if the person had listed the incident, the application would have been approved. That’s how important it is to be as accurate and truthful on the N-400 application.
Step Four: Attend Your Interview and Take the English and Civic Tests.
Within about 4-6 months after filing your N-400 application, you will receive an interview notice informing you of the date and time of your interview. The USCIS officer will review your application with you. If something has changed since you filed, you can update it at that time. This is also a second chance to tell the officer about any arrests, charges, or convictions if you forgot to list them on your application. If so, you’ll need to have a certified disposition of the outcome (available from the Clerk’s Office of the courthouse that decided your case).
The officer will also administer your English and civic tests. The tests consist of:
- Reading and writing a sentence in English;
- An oral examination of 10 random questions you studied from the 100 or so questions in your civics questions. You need to get 6 out of 10 correct in order to pass.
There are a lot of study materials on www.uscis.gov. If you do not pass the first time, you get another chance a couple of months later (for free – you don’t have to pay or apply again).
Step Five: Swearing-In and Become a Naturalized U.S. Citizen!
Finally, some fun. At this time, you receive a notice in the mail informing you of your swearing-in – the point at which you will actually become a U.S. citizen. Each jurisdiction does it differently. (If you live in Virginia or Maryland, for example, you may even be sworn-in after your interview.) At the swearing-in ceremony, you must advise the officials of any changes between the time you had your interview and the date you are being sworn-in. And, you must bring the relevant documents. So, if you got married, bring your marriage certificate; if you get a speeding ticket, bring the certified disposition; if you traveled out of the country, bring your foreign passport.
The ceremony itself is exciting and very momentous. Most applicants cry!
After the ceremony you’ll obtain a certificate of naturalization, and you can now apply for a U.S. passport.
Congratulations! You’re a U.S. Citizen.
Becoming a U.S. citizen is not only more meaningful than many people imagine but it protects lawful permanent residents from some of the most draconian provisions in immigration law. And, it permits those individuals who already call America their home to become full participants in American society. Oh yeah. And now you can vote for President.
Amy Novick (immigration law) has been working in the field of immigration law and policy for more than 25 years and is a principal at Haynes Novick Immigration in Washington, DC www.dcimmigrationattorney.com. Ms. Novick’s practice focuses on obtaining work visas for skilled professionals, issues of concern to G-4 international workers, investors, foreign adoptions, naturalization and citizenship, and family-based immigration matters. To learn more or to schedule a personal consultation, contact her at 202.803.6177 or firstname.lastname@example.org