Citizenship Through Naturalization
Naturalization is the process by which U.S. citizenship is granted to immigrants who fulfill certain requirements. You may qualify for naturalization if you: (a) have been a permanent resident for at least 5 years and meet all other eligibility requirements, (b) have been a permanent resident for 3 years or more and meet all eligibility requirements to file as a spouse of a U.S. citizen; or (c) have qualifying service in the U.S. Armed Forces and meet all other eligibility requirements. In addition, your child may qualify for naturalization if you are a U.S. citizen, the child was born outside the U.S., the child is currently residing outside the U.S., and all other eligibility requirements are met.
Requirements for Naturalization
To qualify for U.S. citizenship through naturalization, you must:
- Be at least 18 years old.
- Have good moral character. This means, among other things, not having certain problems with the police or other authorities.
- Be able to speak, read, and write English at a basic level. There are exceptions for older people. You do not have to know English if at the time you apply for naturalization: (a) you are 55 years or older and have had a green card for 15 years, or (b) you are 50 years or older and have had a green card for 20 years.
- Be able to pass a test on U.S. history and government.
- Swear that you are loyal to the United States.
Lawful Permanent Resident for 3 or 5 Years. In addition to these requirements, to qualify for naturalization you must have been a lawful permanent resident (green card holder) for a certain period of time. If you obtained a green card through marriage to a U.S. citizen, to be eligible for naturalization you must have been a lawful permanent resident for at least 3 years. You must also reside with your spouse in a bona fide marital relationship during that time, and that spouse must have been a U.S. citizen during that time as well. The naturalization form can be submitted after 2 years, 9 months.
In all other cases, to be eligible for naturalization you must have been a lawful permanent resident for at least 5 years. In these cases, the naturalization form can be submitted after 4 years, 9 months. Processing times at various field offices vary, however, so if your naturalization interview is scheduled prior to completion of 5 years as a lawful permanent resident, you will not be permitted to complete the process.
If you obtained a green card through asylum, you also have to wait 5 years to be eligible for naturalization. The one year in Asylee status prior to the green card, however, counts towards the 5-year period.
Continuous Physical Presence. To be eligible for naturalization, you must have spent at least half of your 3 or 5 years as a lawful permanent resident physically in the United States.
In addition, the duration of any single trip abroad must be taken into account. With limited exceptions, an absence of over 1 year will disrupt the continuous residency period—creating an automatic presumption that you “abandoned” your green card status. An applicant who would have to satisfy the 5-year statutory residence period would have to wait 4 years plus 1 day after returning from such a trip (of 1 year or more) in order to file an application for naturalization. An applicant who would have to satisfy the 3-year statutory residence period would have to wait 2 years plus 1 day after returning from such a trip in order to file an application for naturalization.
An absence from the United States of between 6 months and 1 year, on the other hand, would create a “rebuttable” presumption that you abandoned your green card status. Meaning, a USCIS officer would place the burden on you to show that you did not disrupt the continuity of permanent residence. Factors taken into account in that evaluation include: (a) termination of employment in the U.S., (b) where immediate family members resided, (c) whether the person maintained full access to a home in the U.S. and (d) whether the person obtained employment abroad.
Finally, it is important to note that the continuous residency requirement must be met as of the date of filing, not as of the date of the naturalization interview.
Potential Roadblocks to Naturalization
If any of the following things are true about you, you should definitely consult with an immigration attorney before applying for naturalization:
- You made trips out of the United States for more than six months,
- You moved to another country since getting your green card,
- You are in deportation or removal proceedings, or you have been deported,
- You haven’t filed your federal income taxes,
- You haven’t supported your children,
- You are male and did not register for the Selective Service between the ages of 18 and 26,
- You are on probation or parole for a criminal conviction,
- You have contradictory information on your application,
- You lied or committed fraud to get your green card or you were not originally eligible for your green card when you got it,
- You have been arrested or convicted of a crime or you have committed a crime,
- You lied or committed fraud to receive or to continue to receive public benefits,
- You helped someone enter the United States illegally, even if it was a relative,
- You claimed to be a U.S. citizen but you were not,
- You have been charged with committing domestic violence, child abuse, or child neglect,
- You have voted illegally in the United States,
- You have made a living by illegal gambling,
- You have been involved in prostitution, or
- You have been a habitual drunkard, a drug abuser, or a drug addict.
Having one of the things in the above list be true about you does not necessarily disqualify you from naturalization, but you should talk to an immigration lawyer before you apply.
Criminal Convictions. A naturalization applicant must demonstrate good moral character during the statutory period (3 or 5 years, as discussed above). This does not mean, however, that a USCIS officer cannot and will not look beyond the statutory period. If you have “ever been arrested, cited, or detained by any law enforcement officer… for any reason,” you must disclose this on the naturalization form. This applies even if you did not disclose the incident on your previous green card application. Failure to disclose may be grounds to deny the naturalization application and start deportation proceedings.
For any criminal convictions, both before and during the statutory period, a determination must be made as to whether the offense is a Crime Involving Moral Turpitude (CIMT) and/or an Aggravated Felony. Either a CIMT or an Aggravated Felony could have implications for not just the naturalization application but for the underlying green card as well.
If you are a green card holder with a U.S. citizen spouse who is employed abroad, you may qualify for a special expedited citizenship process. If your citizen spouse is employed abroad by the U.S. Government, an American business or one of certain organizations, you may be able to gain your citizenship through “expedited naturalization.” Typically, naturalization requires that a permanent resident both reside and be present in the U.S. a certain number of days before application. However, the expedited citizenship process waives these presence and residency requirements, allowing the green card holder to become a U.S. citizen much faster.
To qualify for this expedited naturalization process:
- You must be a lawful permanent resident who is married to a U.S. citizen;
- Your spouse must work for one of the following: the U.S. government; a specifically recognized American institution or public international organization; or an American corporation which is engaged in foreign commerce;
- Your spouse must be “regularly stationed abroad,” meaning that he or she will be stationed abroad for at least a year from the time that you file for citizenship;
- You must attend your citizenship interview and take your oath while in the U.S.; and
- You must intend to come to the U.S. to live after your spouse’s employment overseas ends.
In addition to the above requirements, you must also meet the other citizenship requirements, including being of good moral character, pledging allegiance to the U.S. Constitution, and passing an English and civics test.
Not only does expedited naturalization allow you to gain citizenship without having to stay in the U.S. a certain number of days, but it will also protect you from having U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) deem that you “abandoned” your green card status by spending too much time abroad.
The process for expedited citizenship involves filing the correct paperwork, including the N-400 form, with USCIS. A few weeks after you have filed your paperwork, USCIS will send you a notice directing you to a local office to have your fingerprints taken. After completing your background check, USCIS will schedule your interview at the district office which you designated on your application. The entire process may take around four to six months, although certain offices may work with you to schedule an interview faster.
You may schedule your interview at any of the district offices in the U.S., although you will want to take some things into consideration. Different offices process applications at different speeds. You will also need to obtain a U.S. passport before leaving the country, meaning you should look into scheduling in a city that has a regional passport agency. For just this reason, the Washington, D.C. field office in Fairfax, Virginia is a popular spot for expedited naturalization applications. The office in Fairfax is proficient at handling a large number of these applications while limiting any unnecessary delays. The office also provides for same day oath ceremonies after a successful interview. Another benefit to choosing the office in Fairfax is that you may quickly obtain a diplomatic passport at the Special Issuance Passport Agency in nearby Washington, D.C.
The expedited citizenship process can provide great benefits to those who are eligible. However, without precise coordination and careful planning, the process can become frustrating and expensive (especially with the overseas travel and time away from work involved). You certainly do not want to find out at the interview that you have missed or incorrectly filed something. To avoid that, it is important that you review your case with an experienced immigration attorney before filing.
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