Haven’t paid child support: Can I get U.S. citizenship?

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Question:

I have a green card, but I lost my job last year and haven’t been able to pay my child support since then. Sometimes I do odd jobs, and then pay my ex-wife what I can. What will happen if I apply for U.S. citizenship?

Answer:

Whether it makes sense for you to apply for citizenship depends on your individual situation. If you have “refused” to pay court-ordered child support, or “willfully failed” to do so, you are barred from receiving U.S. citizenship and should consult with a lawyer before applying. (This comes from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) regulations at 8 C.F.R. § 316.10.)

However, notice that the language of the regulations refers to situations where the applicant was acting intentionally in not paying child support – the implication being that he or she could have done so, but wouldn’t. That leaves room for you to show – ideally with the help of an experienced immigration lawyer -- that you didn’t really “refuse” or “willfully fail” to pay child support, but simply could not pay, for reasons beyond your control.

Showing that you made diligent, sincere efforts to support your children, your chances at citizenship are better. For example, perhaps your ex-wife would be willing to sign a statement on your behalf explaining your good-faith efforts to pay when possible, and detailing any other special efforts you have made to ensure that your children are well-cared for.

Another possibility (more appropriate if any concern exists that your failure will be found willful) is to prove to USCIS that the good side of your character outweighs the bad. In that case, however, you will have to wait for the same amount of time that you are required to have been a permanent resident before applying for citizenship (five years for most people), and the clock will not start ticking until the date of your last failure to send a child support check.

It goes without saying that, if you become financially able to pay the child support at some point, do so as soon as possible, and hang onto the documentation of having done so. This will help your naturalization case.

Again, see an immigration lawyer for a full personal analysis. And for more information on the citizenship application process, see Nolo’s articles on “How to Become a U.S. Citizen.”

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