Becoming a U.S. Citizen
A Guide to the Law, Exam & Interview
Ilona Bray, J.D.
October 2012, 6th Edition
Seeking citizenship? Here's everything you need to know!
The path from green card to U.S. citizenship can be a long and winding one -- and bureaucratic hassles are inevitable. But with Becoming a U.S. Citizen, you can shave months or years off the time it takes to become a citizen. Find out how to:
- determine your eligibility
- make sure you won’t risk deportation by applying
- prepare your application packet
- study for the citizenship exam
- have a successful interview
- appeal the exam and deal with setbacks
- help family members immigrate
- enjoy your status as a U.S. citizen
Becoming a U.S. Citizen also shows how you may be able to take advantage of special procedures if you are disabled, in the military, the spouse of a U.S. citizen, or for other special circumstances.
This edition reflects current and proposed laws, as well as new fees and procedures. Plus, learn about new rules governing naturalization through Armed Forces service, and get the most up-to-date contact information available.
“The clearest, most accurate explanation of immigration laws for nonlawyers thus far.”-Immigration Law Today
“Covers topics that most other guides don’t, helping you to avoid troublespots"- Foreignerinamerica.com
- G-14 (No title—an information-gathering form)
- G-325B Biographic Information
- N-336 Request for a Hearing on a Decision in Naturalization Proceedings (Under Section 336 of the INA)
- N-400 Application for Naturalization
- N-426 Request for Certification of Military or Naval Service
- N-648 Medical Certification for Disability Exceptions
Ilona Bray, J.D. is an award-winning author and legal editor at Nolo, specializing in real estate, immigration law, workplace wellness and nonprofit fundraising. Many of her books are consistent Nolo bestsellers, among them Effective Fundraising for Nonprofits, U.S. Immigration Made Easy and Nolo's Essential Guide to Buying Your First Home. Her latest book is entitled The Volunteers' Guide to Fundraising. She particularly enjoys interviewing people and weaving their stories into her books.
Bray's working background includes solo practice, nonprofit, and corporate stints, as well as long periods of volunteering, including an internship at Amnesty International's main legal office in London. She received her law degree and a Master's degree in East Asian (Chinese) Studies from the University of Washington. In her spare time she enjoys hiking, going to open houses and gardening.
Bray also blogs on ideas for raising money for your nonprofit at Nolo's Fundraising Tips for Busy Nonprofits and provides tips for anyone buying or selling a home at Nolo's Real Estate Tips for Home Buyers and Sellers -- winner of the 2012 "Best Blog" award from the National Association of Real Estate Editors (NAREE). She is also an author on a popular Immigration Law Site and writes Nolo's Immigration Law Blog. Ilona Bray's Profile on Google +
Your Companion on the Path to U.S. Citizenship
1. Deciding Whether to Apply for Citizenship
- The Disadvantages of Applying for Citizenship
- The Advantages of U.S. Citizenship
2. Are You Eligible for U.S. Citizenship?
- Confirming Your Permanent Resident Status
- Your Physical Location During Permanent Residency
- The Age Requirement
- Demonstrating Good Moral Character
- English Language Skills
- The U.S. History and Government Exam
- Loyalty to the U.S.
- Overview: Are You Ready to Apply?
3. Preparing and Submitting Your Application
- What You’ll Put in Your Application Packet
- Preparing Your Cover Letter
- Filling Out USCIS Form N-400
- Submitting the Application
4. Between Filing and Interview: Dealing With the Wait
- Improving Your Eligibility for Citizenship
- Tracking Your Application and Dealing With Delays
- If You Move or Go on Vacation
- Requesting Emergency Attention
- When All Else Fails, Call Your U.S. Congressperson
5. Preparing for the English Exam
- How Much English You’ll Need to Know
- How USCIS Tests Your English
- Study Resources
6. Preparing for the U.S. History and Government Exam
- Your Exam Preparation Strategy
- Learning the Answers to the 100 Questions
- The 20 Questions for Applicants Age 65 and Older
7. Overcoming Disability When Applying for Citizenship
- How to Become the Applicant’s Designated Representative
- Accommodating Your Disability
- Obtaining a Disability-Based Waiver of the Exam Requirements
- Requesting a Waiver of the Oath of Allegiance Requirement
8. The Interview
- Final Preparation
- The Interview
- If the Interview Goes Badly
- Approval or Denial: What’s Next?
9. Denials, Appeals, and Repeat Interviews
- Retaking the Exams
- Providing More Documents
- Choosing to Appeal or Reapply
- How to Appeal
- What to Do If You Lose the Appeal
- Reapplying for Citizenship
10. Legal Help Beyond This Book
- When Do You Need a Lawyer?
- Gather Names of Prospective Attorneys
- Avoid Sleazy Lawyers
- Choosing Among Lawyers
- Signing Up Your Lawyer
- Firing Your Lawyer
- Do-It-Yourself Legal Research
11. After You Are Approved
- The Swearing-In Ceremony
- How to Prove Your Citizenship
- Registering to Vote
- Citizenship for Your Children
- Helping Other Family Members Immigrate
Deciding Whether to Apply for Citizenship
Many people spend their entire lives in the United States without ever trading in their green cards for citizenship—and their friends may never know it. Their reasons vary: Some of these long-time permanent residents want to show their loyalty to their native country, some are worried that they’ll fail the citizenship exam, and some just never get around to applying.
For many green card holders, however, the advantages of U.S. citizenship—for example, security from deportation (technically called “removal”), freedom of travel, and eligibility for public benefits—far outweigh the drawbacks. And as we’ll see, citizenship offers some refuge from political decisions that whittle away at green card rights.
In this chapter, we’ll discuss the advantages and disadvantages of applying for and obtaining U.S. citizenship.
Read this chapter even if you are sure you want to apply for U.S. citizenship. Focus in particular on Section A1, where we explain how applying for U.S. citizenship can lead to your removal or deportation, either if your original green card application should not have been approved or if you’ve committed acts since receiving your green card that make you removable (deportable).
The Disadvantages of Applying for Citizenship
We’ll start with the negative aspects of applying for and receiving U.S. citizenship—but not because they outweigh the positive aspects. We simply want you to fully appreciate the risks and possible pitfalls of applying for or receiving U.S. citizenship. These include:
• If you got your green card fraudulently or have since become removable, applying for citizenship may bring you to USCIS’s attention and result in your deportation (removal from the U.S.). (See Section A1.)
• Your native country may not allow dual citizenship (see Section A2).
• Carrying a U.S. passport may be a security risk in some countries (see Section A3).
• You may not be allowed to serve your home country in times of conflict (see Section A4).
1. The Risk of Removal From the U.S.
If something happened in your past that makes you removable or deportable, you should not apply for U.S. citizenship—or, at the very least, you should talk to a lawyer before doing so. The citizenship process may uncover whatever it is you’re hiding and send you directly into removal proceedings.
Perhaps your green card should never have been approved in the first place because you lied on the application, or maybe you’ve committed a crime that no one at USCIS seems to have noticed yet. Either way, applying for citizenship gives USCIS a chance to review your whole immigration history, from the time you entered the United States to the present. If something isn’t quite right, you could find yourself fighting removal in Immigration Court.
In this section, we look separately at the two most common types of problems:
• a green card that shouldn’t have been approved in the first place, and
• a green card that USCIS can take away because you’ve done something that violates its terms.
a. If Your Green Card Application Shouldn’t Have Been Approved
USCIS would be the first to admit that it makes mistakes, sometimes approving people for green cards who were not eligible for them. You probably already know if you committed outright fraud—that is, lied or deliberately covered something up—on your green card application. Common types of fraud include faking a marriage, hiding a criminal conviction in one’s home country, and creating false documents to show a sponsor who doesn’t exist.
However, you might also have unintentionally lied—for example, gotten a green card through a relative whose own green card had already been revoked (canceled or taken away), or turned 21 before you got a green card, not realizing that the category for “children” of permanent residents applied only while you remained younger than age 21.
Example 1: Rodrigo got his green card through the farmworker amnesty program in the 1980s. In truth, he was a car mechanic, but he bought a letter from a farmer stating that he had picked strawberries during the required time period. During the citizenship interview, the USCIS officer asks Rodrigo how high he had to reach to pick the strawberries. Rodrigo answers, “Oh, no more than eight feet.” The officer, knowing that strawberries don’t grow on trees, takes a look at Rodrigo’s old INS file. She notices that the employer who swore to Rodrigo’s work was one whom USCIS believes to have made a lot of money selling fake letters. Rodrigo’s citizenship application is denied, and he is placed in removal proceedings.
Example 2: Leonora applied for a green card as the unmarried child of a U.S. permanent resident. She was on the waiting list for a number of years, during which time she fell in love and married her sweetheart. Finally, her green card came through. She didn’t say anything about her marriage, and the U.S. consulate forgot to ask. However, had the marriage been revealed, her green card would have been denied, because the category she applied in was meant only for unmarried children. When Leonora applies for citizenship, she lists the date of her marriage. The USCIS officer notices that the marriage occurred before Leonora’s green card was approved—in other words, Leonora was ineligible for her green card. Leonora faces removal proceedings.
If you are unsure about whether you really deserve your green card, see a lawyer. The lawyer can request a copy of your USCIS file and analyze it for problems.
b. If You’ve Become Removable After Getting Your Green Card
U.S. laws contain a list of activities that can cause a green card holder to lose the right to live in the United States. Commit one of these activities and you become removable. If anything on the list below looks like something you’ve done, do not file your citizenship application until you see an immigration attorney. (We can’t give you extensive details on each of these activities, so don’t rely on this list alone.)
• You were inadmissible when you last entered the United States (see “Actions and Conditions That Make You Inadmissible,” below, for more about inadmissibility).
• You have violated a condition of your U.S. stay.
• You were unsuccessful in turning your conditional residence into permanent residence (primarily affecting people who married U.S. citizens).
• You have helped smuggle someone into the United States within five years of when you entered the country (with limited exceptions for close family).
• You have entered into a fake marriage to try to get a green card.
• You have committed a crime of moral turpitude within five years of becoming a U.S. resident (or ten years if you got your residency after living in the United States illegally, by paying a penalty fee under Section 245(i) of the I.N.A.). There is no USCIS-approved list of crimes of moral turpitude (see “What Constitutes Moral Turpitude?,” below).
• You have committed a crime of moral turpitude for which the judge could have imposed a sentence of one year or more.
• You committed two or more separate crimes of moral turpitude.
• You committed an aggravated felony.
• You have committed a drug-related crime (except a single conviction for possession of 30 grams of marijuana or less).
• You use or are addicted to illegal drugs.
• You have committed a gun-related crime (such as selling, possessing, or using a gun illegally).
• You have violated federal laws regarding spying, treason, sedition (insurrection against the U.S. government or providing support to an enemy government), or assisting others to enter or leave the United States illegally.
• You have committed a domestic violence crime or violated anti-stalking, child abuse, neglect, or abandonment laws.
• You deliberately failed to notify the INS or USCIS of your new address within ten days of moving.
• You have fraudulently acquired a visa or other official document (that is, you got it by lying or deliberately omitting information).
• You have falsely claimed to be a U.S. citizen.
• You are a threat to public safety, national security, or U.S. foreign policy.
• You have tried to overthrow the U.S. government.
• You have assisted in Nazi persecution.
• You have engaged in genocide.
• You became a public charge (received welfare payments) within five years of your approval for U.S. residency.
• You have voted in a U.S. election. (Green card holders cannot vote in the United States.)
In most cases, whatever you did wrong will have come to the attention of the INS or USCIS right after it happened. For example, USCIS checks the names of people in jail and asks the police to turn over criminal immigrants. If you’ve been out of the country, the border officer normally checks whether you are admissible, looking in particular at whether you stayed away too long or resettled elsewhere.
But sometimes violations go undetected by the U.S. government. For example, a person who pleads guilty to a crime but never goes to jail may escape USCIS’s attention. Similarly, border patrol officers sometimes let in green card holders when they should have kept them out.
If You Divorce
People who receive their green card through marriage to a U.S. citizen or permanent resident but later divorce that person often worry about how this will affect their citizenship application. They wonder whether the divorce makes their green card invalid or will spur USCIS to deny their citizenship.
As long as your marriage was the real thing—that is, not a sham solely for purposes of acquiring your green card—and you got all the way to being approved for permanent (not merely conditional) residence, divorce will not invalidate your green card. Many people get divorced, and the immigration laws recognize that the United States may have become home to the divorced immigrant, with or without the ex-spouse.
The divorce may, however, make the USCIS officer interviewing you for citizenship wonder whether you faked it through the green card application process. USCIS officers won’t automatically assume from your divorce that your marriage was a sham—but they may want some reassurance.
Prepare for this by gathering documents that prove your marriage was genuine (and make sure they’re more recent than the documents already in the USCIS file from your green card application). Don’t include these documents with your citizenship application. Instead, make copies and take these, with the originals, to your citizenship interview. The following documents may help:
p rent receipts or a home title in both your and your ex-spouse’s names (showing that you lived together)
p birth certificates of children born to the two of you
p a letter from your spiritual or psychological counselor describing your meetings—particularly where your marriage was discussed. (If possible, the letter should emphasize that you worked hard to save your marriage and that the issues you discussed were the thorny ones faced by people truly trying to share their lives.)
p evidence of joint bank accounts, credit cards, and club memberships
p photographs of the two of you on vacations or sharing important occasions (preferably where the camera has automatically inserted the date), and
p subscriptions to magazines and newspapers at your shared address.
In short, if you’ve done something to make you removable and USCIS hasn’t yet caught up with you, applying for U.S. citizenship will give the agency the perfect opportunity.
Example 1: Matilda got her green card as a result of marrying a U.S. citizen. She and her husband have fiery tempers, and their arguments sometimes become physical. After one violent encounter, Matilda’s husband had her arrested for domestic violence. She tried to have him arrested too, but since he was bleeding a lot more than she was, the police checked him into a hospital instead. Matilda pled guilty to a domestic violence charge in order to avoid jail time. When Matilda applies for citizenship, the USCIS officer notices the conviction on her FBI record. Since domestic violence is grounds for removal, the officer places Matilda into Immigration Court proceedings.
Example 2: Patrick’s U.S. employer got him a green card. He lived and worked in the United States for two years and then went back to his native Britain for two years. After that, he returned to the United States using his British passport (British citizens can enter the United States without a visa). He then used his U.S. green card to live and work in the United States for the next five years. Although his two-year stay in Britain meant that Patrick had given up his green card, his employer had no way of knowing this, because he still held the physical card that he could show to his boss. When Patrick applied for citizenship, the USCIS officer determined that Patrick had abandoned his U.S. residence during the two years in Britain and it was therefore inappropriate for Patrick to claim green card status after he reentered the United States. USCIS places Patrick in removal proceedings.
Example 3: Leticia applies for U.S. citizenship. She has one minor crime on her record—fraudulent use of an ex-friend’s credit card. However, USCIS considers this a crime of moral turpitude (see “What Constitutes Moral Turpitude?,” below). Even though a single crime of moral turpitude isn’t grounds for removal, it is grounds for denying Leticia readmission to the U.S. if she left and attempted to return. After being released from jail, Leticia took a trip to Canada. When she returned to the United States, the border patrol officer didn’t ask about her criminal record. Since Leticia was inadmissible during that entry, she is removable now. After Leticia applies for citizenship, the USCIS officer at her interview realizes that an error occurred at the U.S. border, denies citizenship, and places Leticia in Immigration Court proceedings.
What Constitutes Moral Turpitude?
According to the Board of Immigration Appeals, a crime of moral turpitude is inherently base, vile, or depraved, contrary to social standards of morality, and done with a reckless, malicious, or evil intent. In short, this is a subjective, catchall term that can be used for any crime that USCIS considers offensive. For example, USCIS has judged moral turpitude to be present in crimes involving great bodily injury, sexual offenses, kidnapping, stalking, fraud, theft, embezzlement, bribery, and unlawful use of a Social Security number.
To read the law on removability, see I.N.A. § 237(a), 8 U.S.C. § 1227(a). You can find this at your local law library or at www.uscis.gov. Click “Laws,” then “Immigration and Nationality Act.” After reading the law, you will still need the help of an immigration lawyer to answer questions about whether or not you have done something that makes you removable. Many of the terms used in the law, like “moral turpitude” and “aggravated felony,” are unique to the immigration laws, and you won’t be able to tell by looking at your court record whether you’ve committed one.
Every law has its exceptions. Removability rules are not always as harsh as they first appear. Some come with exceptions and waivers (opportunities to apply to USCIS for legal forgiveness). So, even if you have done something that makes you removable, you might be able to save yourself—and your chances of becoming a citizen—by qualifying for one of these exceptions or applying for a waiver. We’re unable to cover the various exceptions and waivers in this book, but an immigration lawyer can alert you to the ones that apply.
Actions and Conditions That Make You Inadmissible
No, you’re not seeing double. The activities that make you inadmissible overlap in many ways with the activities that make you removable. Inadmissibility affects whether you can enter the United States, regardless of whether it’s for the first time or with a green card (although, if you had a green card and you reentered the U.S. after April 1, 1997, you’re affected by these only if you were out of the U.S. for 180 days or more, or did something illegal during your trip). If you’ve committed any of the activities below, USCIS can keep you from entering. And if you were let into the United States when you shouldn’t have been—that is, when you were inadmissible, USCIS will deny you citizenship and can take away your green card.
You are (or were) inadmissible if, when entering the United States, you:
• had a communicable disease of public health significance, such as tuberculosis
• had a physical or mental disorder that makes you harmful to others
• were likely to become a public charge (receive welfare benefits)—something USCIS determines based on your current income, ability to work, and family resources
• were a drug abuser (if you’ve tried illegal drugs more than once in the past three years, that’s enough for USCIS)
• had committed or been convicted of a crime of moral turpitude
• had been convicted of two or more crimes (whether misdemeanors or felonies), where the total sentence you received was five years or more
• had been convicted of certain specified crimes, such as prostitution or drug trafficking
• are the immediate family member of a drug trafficker and have knowingly benefited from their illicit money within the last five years
• had committed espionage or sabotage against the United States
• were a member of the Communist Party or other totalitarian organization
• were a Nazi or had participated in genocide
• were seeking entry as a health care or other certified worker but had failed to meet licensing requirements
• had previously violated the immigration laws or lied or committed fraud during immigration procedures
• had falsely claimed to have U.S. citizenship
• had spent time in the United States unlawfully or hadn’t obtained proper documentation to enter the United States (not an issue for immigrants who hold valid green cards)
• had previously been removed or deported from the United States
• believed that polygamy is valid (that is, believe in being married to more than one person at the same time), regardless of whether you were actually a polygamist
• had committed international child abduction (taking a child across international borders), or
• were on a J-1 or J-2 exchange visitor visa and were subject to the two-year foreign residence requirement.
You can access the law on inadmissibility (I.N.A. § 212(a), 8 U.S.C.
§ 1182) at your local law library or at www.uscis.gov. Click “Laws ,” then “Immigration and Nationality Act.”
2. Some Countries Won’t Allow Dual Citizenship
If USCIS approves your citizenship application, you will attend a ceremony where you will have to swear to “absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which [you] have heretofore been a subject or citizen.”
Does this mean that you must give up the citizenship (and passport) of your country of origin? Not necessarily. It depends on both U.S. law and the law of your home country. Many people today successfully hold dual citizenship—that is, they are simultaneously U.S. citizens and citizens of another country.
Dual citizenship can be important for a number of reasons. You may feel a huge sense of loss in giving up the passport of the country you once called home. More practically, the laws of your home country may require that you give up other important rights along with your citizenship—such as your rights to a pension, to receive government-paid health care if you are elderly or disabled, to vote, or to own land.
U.S. law concerning dual citizenship is very vague. Nowhere does it say that you can be a dual citizen—but then, nowhere does it say that you can’t. Historically, the U.S. government has used this vagueness as an opportunity to make people believe that choosing U.S. citizenship excludes all others. The oath that people take at their swearing-in ceremony (quoted above) would make anyone think that they were agreeing to give up all other citizenships right then and there. However, the United States will not actually stop you from keeping your citizenship in your home country after becoming a U.S. citizen—if that is what you want, and provided your home country allows it.
Because the U.S. government does not formally sanction dual citizenship, there are no particular procedures to follow. No one will give you a certificate or other evidence that the U.S. government recognizes and approves your dual status. Your home country, however, may require more. First, find out whether your home country will cancel your citizenship if you are naturalized as a U.S. citizen. If cancellation isn’t automatic, find out whether you have to take special steps to keep your home citizenship. Some countries allow it automatically, others allow it after an application process, and still others offer something less than full citizenship, with or without an application.
This book is published in the United States, and we don’t pretend to be experts on the complex laws of every other country in the world. But, take heart—the majority of countries around the globe do allow dual citizenship, at least in some form.
Since we don’t have space to provide all of the procedures for and limits on retaining your non-U.S. citizenship, you should look for further information on your own. A good starting point is the embassy of your home country in the United States. You can usually find it in the Washington, DC, phone book, or find Internet links to the various embassies at www.embassy.org.
3. Carrying a U.S. Passport in Unfriendly Territory
As a large and powerful country, the United States is a focus of public opinion and debate, both positive and negative. Unfortunately, anger against the U.S. government is sometimes directed against its citizens traveling overseas. There is no way to predict whether, where, or how a guerrilla or terrorist group might make you a scapegoat for U.S. foreign policy. You’ll have to assess the risks yourself, based on where you plan to travel and what you observe of world events.
Of course, if you have dual citizenship, you can always carry the passport of your home country on a trip—but you’ll need to show your U.S. passport when you depart and return to the United States. You can use the other passport to travel with—that is, show it on entry to other countries. However, if you do so, the U.S. consulate there may refuse to help you if you get into a jam. Also, don’t flaunt your non-U.S. passport when you return to the United States. U.S. border officials are suspicious of people who carry two passports, and they will probably question you to confirm that everything is aboveboard.
4. You May Not Be Allowed to Serve Your Native Country During War
The United States requires that its citizens demonstrate loyalty in any conflict. In fact, you’ll be asked on the citizenship application if you’re willing to serve in the U.S. military, either in combat or in a supporting role, if the need arises. (We’ll discuss this more in Chapter 3, which covers how to fill out the citizenship application.) This also means that the United States may take action against you if you join your own country in a war that’s against the United States or its allies or interests.
The Advantages of U.S. Citizenship
U.S. citizenship is definitely an improvement over permanent resident status. At the very least, you won’t have to renew your green card every ten years—or even carry the card around. But wait, there’s more! As a U.S. citizen you get:
• the right to vote and obtain certain federal jobs (see Section B1)
• security from anti-immigrant laws (see Section B2)
• security from removal (see Section B3)
• the right to live or take long trips outside the United States (see Section B4)
• special rights and protections when traveling outside the United States (see Section B5)
• an unquestioned right to return to the United States (see Section B6)
• the ability to bring other family members to the United States (faster than you could as a permanent resident) or to pass citizenship to your children (see Section B7), and
• the right to apply for public benefits (see Section B8).
1. The Right to Vote and Hold Certain Federal Jobs
Green card holders cannot vote in any U.S. election, be it local, state, or federal. (If you did vote, see an immigration lawyer immediately—this could result in denial of your application for citizenship.) Once you receive U.S. citizenship, however, you can make your voice heard in local and national elections. Politicians are increasingly aware of the voting-bloc power of immigrants—and are offering meaningful choices and reforms to immigrant voters as a result.
In addition to voting, U.S. citizenship will open the door to many federal job opportunities. The federal government is a huge employer, offering good salaries and job stability. You may not realize how many U.S. government branch offices are in your community—the Social Security Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and more. Many U.S. Foreign Service jobs also require U.S. citizenship. If you’ve got political aspirations, you can run for elected office—although you’ll never be able to run for U.S. President or Vice President. (You must be born in the U.S.A. to qualify for either of these jobs.)
2. Security From Anti-Immigrant Laws
U.S. sentiment toward immigrants has its ups and downs, but sometimes you can’t open the newspaper without seeing a proposed change toughening up the federal immigration laws. These new laws primarily affect people who are here illegally or don’t have green cards—but even legal immigrants with green cards aren’t immune. Individual U.S. states are, more than ever before, experimenting with legislation to discourage undocumented immigrants from living there. And the U.S. Congress—limited only by Constitutional guarantees like free speech and equal protection—can change the rights of green card holders at any time.
A dramatic example of this occurred in the late 1990s, when Congress decided to make green card holders ineligible for various federal benefits such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Thousands of elderly and disabled immigrants with low financial resources were suddenly cut off from their lifeline of cash support and medical or nursing home care. (The decision reportedly led to some suicides.) Congress subsequently softened this law, but tight restrictions remain. For example, immigrants who entered the United States after August 22, 1996, can qualify for SSI only if they’ve had a green card for five years and have worked 40 quarters (ten years) in the United States—or fall into one of a few similarly narrow categories.
More recently, Congress has responded to U.S. security concerns by requiring that all airport baggage and passenger screeners be U.S. citizens.
As a U.S. citizen, you can stop worrying about Congress’s latest idea. You’ll have the same basic rights as any other U.S. citizen.
3. Security From Removal
Although most green card holders can live in the United States for years without problems, an unfortunate number become removable and lose their green cards. (We provided a list of the reasons for removal in Section A1, above.) Others may become inadmissible, and therefore ineligible to return to the United States once they’ve left.
With U.S. citizenship, the specter of removal is eliminated. The grounds of removal do not apply to U.S. citizens. However, USCIS—although it rarely does so—can take away your citizenship if it finds you lied when seeking your green card or citizenship.
4. The Right to Live Outside the U.S. or to Take Long Trips
A green card holder who spends more than six months abroad, or shows signs of resettling elsewhere, can lose permanent residence rights. Ironically, becoming a U.S. citizen allows you to spend less time in the United States—even to make your home elsewhere if you wish. No one will take away your citizenship as a result. In addition, and unlike U.S. permanent residents, you will be allowed to continue receiving any retirement or other benefits you’ve earned from Social Security while you’re living abroad.
Even if you want to retain your primary home inside the United States, gaining citizenship will be a huge help if you travel a great deal or have close family members or other obligations outside the United States. If family emergencies arise, you’ll be able to attend to them, confident of your easy return to the United States.
5. Special Rights and Protections When Traveling Outside the U.S.
If you enjoy visiting other countries, you’ll find your U.S. passport helpful. Many countries lighten their visa requirements and restrictions for citizens of the United States and other developed nations.
You’ll also enjoy the protection of the U.S. State Department while you’re traveling. The State Department takes very seriously its role in protecting U.S. citizens abroad. If you are injured, robbed, or run into other problems beyond your control, you’ll get help from the local U.S. consulate, such as arranging your care and transportation home.
If you’re arrested abroad, the State Department will help you find an attorney and see that you’re treated humanely. (However, if you’ve actually committed a crime, don’t count on the State Department to pressure the foreign state to stop your punishment. The degree of help you get depends on the seriousness of your crime and the relations between the United States and the foreign government.)
For a fuller picture of these services see the State Department’s website (www.state.gov).
6. Ease in Returning to the U.S.
Remember those long lines for green card holders that you stood in when you last entered the United States? The lines are much shorter for U.S. citizens. You’ll still have to pass border patrol officials, but at least they won’t be asking questions designed to see whether they should take away your green card. You will no longer be subject to inadmissibility rules when you reenter the United States.
As we indicated in Section A1, above, green card holders must meet admissibility standards when they enter the United States after a long trip, and failing to meet these standards can result in being barred from entry and from citizenship.
For more on inadmissibility, see Nolo’s website, www.nolo.com. Look for the article in the Immigration section entitled “When the U.S. Can Keep You Out.” Also see U.S. Immigration Made Easy, by Ilona Bray (Nolo).
7. Increased Ability to Help Family Members Immigrate
As a U.S. citizen, your existing children with green cards, any children you adopt, and any children born to you after you receive your citizenship automatically (well, almost automatically, depending on the circumstances) become U.S. citizens. For more on passing citizenship to your children, see Chapter 11.
In addition, you can submit a petition to sponsor certain other family members for U.S. green cards (but not citizenship—they’ll have to wait a few years just like you did). You’ll be able to submit petitions for your parents, your children, your spouse, and your brothers and sisters.
Unfortunately, not every petition results in your family member getting a green card right away. If your children are older than 21 or are married, they’ll be put on a waiting list that usually lasts several years. Your brothers and sisters will also be put on a waiting list that averages at least ten years in length. Without your citizenship, however, the same family members would either wait much longer or have no rights to immigrate at all.
For more information on how your citizenship can help your family members to immigrate, see Chapter 11.
8. Eligibility for Public Benefits
If your life takes a difficult turn and you discover you can’t pay for your own food or medical care, you’ll have a much easier time qualifying for government help if you’re a U.S. citizen. You will be permitted to apply for SSI (if you’re disabled and have a low income), federal food stamps, general assistance (cash support), nonemergency medical services, and a variety of state assistance programs—all of which are off limits or severely restricted while you’re a permanent resident. Even if you never plan to rely on government help, knowing it’s available in an emergency can be reassuring.