The refugee pathway to U.S. citizenship consists of several steps, both for adults and for children. The person enters the U.S. with refugee status, can become a lawful permanent resident (LPR) after one year, and finally may become a U.S. citizen. (See Applying for Permanent Residence as a Refugee.)
This last step, becoming a U.S. citizen, however, may be procedurally different depending on whether a refugee entered the U.S. as a child or as an adult. This article will describe those differences, and explain how refugee children can best attain the important immigration benefits provided by U.S. citizenship.
Citizenship status offers the highest possible level of protection to refugees, such as protection from the possibility of deportation (see, for example, Grounds of Deportability: When Legal U.S. Residents Can Be Removed). U.S. citizens are also allowed to petition for additional family members to join them in the U.S., as described in Green Cards for Your Family: Sponsorship Categories. (A particularly common concern among refugees is elderly parents who were not processed as refugees. A U.S. citizen aged 21 or older may petition for parents to immigrate to the U.S. as immediate relatives. )
Adults must go through a lengthy qualification and application process called “naturalization” in order to become U.S. citizens. This involves applying through USCIS (on Form N-400), passing English language and U.S. civics tests, and attending an oath ceremony. (See Who Can Apply for U.S Citizenship.)
Becoming a naturalized citizen tends to take at least five years after U.S. entry, as described in When Can I Apply for U.S. Citizenship? A refugee child, by contrast, may instantly “derive” U.S. citizenship when his or her parent naturalizes, and thus avoid the naturalization process. It happens automatically, by operation of law, and the child does not need to file anything to “claim” the citizenship (though the child may wish to apply for a document proving it, as described below).
But not every refugee who entered the U.S. as a child qualifies for derived citizenship. This is worth taking a careful look at, because a child who does not get derivative citizenship will (assuming he or she wants to become a U.S. citizen) need to apply to naturalize as an adult.
Under current U.S. immigration regulations, a child derives citizenship automatically upon satisfying these conditions, in any order:
It doesn’t matter who entered the U.S. first, the parent or the child. Interestingly, a child refugee who enters the U.S. at some time after the parent may in fact become a U.S. citizen in less time than the parent. If a child refugee enters the U.S., obtains a green card a bit over a year later, and his or her parent naturalizes soon after, then the child could become a citizen within less than two years of entering the United States.
But if the order is changed, and the child refugee enters the U.S. first, then the parent naturalizes, and then the child becomes a permanent resident, the child will still derive citizenship from the parent.
What if the child has already turned 18 by the time you are reading this, but otherwise met all the criteria described above? In such a case, so long as the child was under 18 when either parent naturalized, the child became a citizen, even without anyone knowing it at the time.
Because refugees receive a green card that is “back dated” (to the date of having entered the U.S. as a refugee, a child could, potentially, show derivation of citizenship even without having applied to become a permanent resident before age 18. That's because the when the former child refugee is approved for his or her green card, it will show that the date he or she became a permanent resident was one year earlier.
The regulations for derived citizenship eligibility are different for immigrants who turned 18 on or before February 18, 2001, and they also changed multiple times before that. The majority of current refugee children will be covered by the newer regulations. (If not, the situation becomes far more complicated, and it’s a good idea to get counsel from an immigration attorney.)
If you’re a refugee adult with children who you brought to the U.S., it’s a good idea to naturalize as soon as possible – specifically, while your minor children remain under age 18. Because one of the requirements for derivation of citizenship is that the child be under 18 when you naturalize, they will lose this important opportunity if you wait too long.
Plus, you’ll save your children money by allowing them to avoid the naturalization process. If all of your children are under 18 when you naturalize, then for the price of one naturalization application ($595 in late 2016), your children may all become citizens. (Nevertheless, unless they qualify for a fee waiver, they will still need to pay fees in order to obtain proof of citizenship, either in the form of a U.S. passport or a certificate of citizenship.)
Because there is no application process for deriving U.S. citizenship, there is no automatic way to prove that one has, in fact, become a citizen. However, a child can, with the right evidence, either apply to USCIS for a certificate of citizenship (using Form N-600) or to the Department of State for a passport.