Cautions for Former Asylees Seeking Naturalized U.S. Citizenship

Applying for U.S. citizenship gives U.S. immigration authorities a chance to review your entire immigration file and everything that has happened in your life since then -- learn what particular risks this often poses for asylees and refugees.

For many people who came to the U.S. as asylees and then became permanent residents, U.S. citizenship is the next step in establishing their lives in the United States. Citizenship gives a person additional benefits not offered to permanent residents, including the right to vote, the ability to petition for additional family members abroad to immigrate, and the ability to reside abroad without losing U.S. immigration status.

For the basic eligibility requirements for naturalization, take a look at Nolo’s article on “Who Can Apply for U.S. Citizenship.”

But there are also risks to applying for citizenship, especially because it gives U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services (USCIS) a chance to review your entire immigration file and everything that has happened in your life since then. If you entered the United States as a refugee or asylee, you will, as a result, need to take certain precautions when filing your application for naturalization.

If you recently obtained U.S. asylum, it is a good idea to keep these issues in mind during the years before you apply for naturalization, to ensure that you do not do anything that will hurt your citizenship case down the road. And if you are ready to apply for naturalization now, you should carefully consider and address any of these issues that might apply to you .

USCIS Will Double-Check Whether Your Asylum Claim Was Bona Fide

When USCIS reviews a former asylee’s application for naturalization, it wants to make sure that the person’s underlying asylum claim was bona fide, or real. This means that the agency may look very closely at the person’s naturalization application and history in the United States to make sure that it is consistent with the reasons he or she requested asylum.

For example, if a man requested asylum because he feared persecution in his home country based on his homosexuality, and then that man marries a woman in the United States, USCIS may wonder if he lied about his sexual orientation on his asylum application.

Or, if a Christian pastor fled his home country because the government was persecuting Christians, but now he is a practicing Muslim, USCIS may believe that he lied about his religion to receive asylum.

In both of these cases, the underlying asylum claim may truly be bona fide, and the person’s life may simply have changed significantly since the application for asylum. Nevertheless, USCIS will to look very closely at the application and may deny it if the applicant cannot offer a strong explanation for the discrepancies.

The best way to explain such changes is by providing corroborating documentation. For example, in the case of the homosexual man above, he may have realized after coming to the United States that he was actually bisexual. Some documentation that he might use to prove this includes a report from any psychologists or counselors he has visited about his sexuality, a letter from his wife that explains her knowledge of his sexual preference, receipts from LGBT bars showing that he is still active in the LGBT community, and proof of any relationships he had with men in the United States before he met his wife.

Do not wait for USCIS to request this documentation from you. Instead, your best course of action is likely to include it, along with a letter explaining the situation, in your initial application. This will show USCIS that you are being completely honest with it and understand the likely concerns.

USCIS Will Examine Your Travel History

If a person travels back to his or her home country after receiving asylum, USCIS may suspect that that person did not actually fear persecution when he or she applied for asylum. And if the person travels to the home country frequently, USCIS will become especially suspicious.

The basis of an asylum application is that the applicant fears persecution in his or her home country, and when that person regularly travels there, it appears that the fear and the risk of persecution were actually very low. If you have travelled back to your home country at all since receiving asylum, you will need to explain to USCIS why you did so (perhaps for an urgent matter that outweighed the risks) and show that the underlying risk of persecution on your asylum application was real.

When trying to explain to USCIS why you travelled back to your home country, think about the reasons for your travel and the precautions you took while you were there. For example, let’s say that a year or two (or more) after you received lawful permanent residence, the conditions in your home country changed and you no longer faced a risk of returning. Perhaps your government was in the middle of a civil war when you came to the United States, but now the war has ended and the different political parties are working together peacefully, making it safe for you to visit. If such a fact pattern applies to you, gather country-conditions reports and news articles showing the safer country conditions around the time you travelled.

Or, maybe it is still very dangerous for you to visit your home country, but you had to go for serious personal reasons, such as the grave illness of a close relative. In this case, you should explain to USCIS the precautions you took to protect yourself while you were there, such as remaining in hiding during your trip, using a different name, or wearing a disguise while you were out in public. Write a declaration that describes all of your efforts, have friends or family members who were with you write letters on your behalf, or provide photos that show where you where you hid or your disguise.

If neither of the above examples apply to you, think about why you travelled to your home country, and prepare to show USCIS why that travel did not undercut your initial asylum eligibility. Provide copies of any documentation that further proves your explanation.

USCIS May Look for Your Name on the INTERPOL List of Criminals and Terrorists

Occasionally, a person receives asylum in the United States and later appears on the Interpol “wanted person” list. The person may appear on the list due to having committed a crime in the home country, may be on the list due to mistaken identity, or may appear on the list because of involvement in a terrorist organization, even without having known it was a terrorist organization at the time.

USCIS takes the Interpol “wanted person” list very seriously. If your name is on the list, even if it is a mistake, it could seriously impact your naturalization case. If you believe that you may be on the Interpol “wanted person” list, contact an immigration attorney immediately to discuss your options.

USCIS Will Want to See That You Registered for the Selective Service

Every male U.S. citizen or immigrant between the ages of 18 and 25 is required to register for the Selective Service – that is, fill out a form that provides their name and address in case the United States ever needs to rapidly expand the armed forces in an emergency. Unfortunately, many immigrants do not know about this requirement and fail to register. This failure to register can affect a person’s application for naturalization.

If you failed to register for the Selective Service, read this Nolo article discussing “Naturalization Eligibility for Men Who Failed to Register With the Selective Service”to determine whether you can still apply for naturalization.

USCIS Will Look for Inconsistencies Between Your Application for Naturalization and Your Application for Asylum

A big problem for many former asylees who are now applying for naturalization is that they make statements on their N-400 Application for Naturalization that are different from either the information they gave on their I-589 Application for Asylum or in their testimony when applying for asylum. Some of the most common types of inconsistencies are:

  • failure to list all of the organizations and groups the person claimed to be a member of on the asylum application

  • claiming relatives on Form N-400 that the applicant did not claim on the asylum application, and

  • checking “No” on any of the questions involving criminal activity or arrests when the persecution in the asylum application involved arrests or criminal charges in the individual’s home country.

Of course, your first step is to be careful to accurately fill out your Form N-400. If, however, any of such inconsistencies reflect actual facts in your case, you will need to explain to the USCIS officer what happened. Certain inconsistencies could result in a bar to naturalization or cast doubt on the statements you made in your underlying asylum application.

In all of the scenarios above, it is very important to address the issues and bring them up proactively with USCIS, both in the application for naturalization and in the interview. Often, upfront honesty about a mistake or inconsistency can be the deciding factor between the approval or denial of an application. It is also a good idea to talk to an immigration attorney if any of these common mistakes apply to you. Even though they seem small, they may have a big impact on your case.

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