If you are a green card holder (lawful permanent resident) who has lived in the U.S. for five years (or three in some cases), learned English, and wish to make the U.S. your permanent home, applying for citizenship may be the natural next step. But it's a risky step for some people.
When you apply for U.S. citizenship, you give U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) an opportunity to reopen your file—your entire immigration file, years into the past—and to double check whether you actually deserved all the immigration benefits you have received thus far. USCIS will also run a fingerprint check on you, and might even look into your records with your home country.
If something new and troublesome is revealed, you could not only find that USCIS denies your naturalization application, but that the U.S. government places you in removal (deportation) proceedings and perhaps strips you of your status as a U.S. permanent resident.
This article will highlight some of the most common and dangerous "red flags" that raise questions about a person's citizenship eligibility.
The requirements for U.S. citizenship include that the applicant have good moral character, which a crime on one's record makes it much, much harder to show. What's more, certain crimes create an absolute bar to U.S. citizenship (or at least a bar within a certain period of years). For more on this, see Crimes That Will Prevent You From Receiving U.S. Citizenship.
USCIS sometimes makes mistakes, approving people for green cards or other immigration benefits (such as asylum) who were not eligible for them in the first place. But the agency is getting more efficient at tracking down information from the past, including from foreign governments, and in reevaluating the green card approval at the time you apply for U.S. citizenship.
You might not even know whether you committed fraud on your green card application. Of course, if you outright lied or deliberately covered something up, such as by faking a marriage, hiding a criminal conviction in your home country, lied in court (perhaps falsely claiming to have been persecuted in your home country in order to gain asylum) or creating false documents to show a sponsor who didn't exist or that you spent less time in the U.S. unlawfully then you really did, you probably know about it.
But you might also have unintentionally committed fraud. If, for example, you received your green card through a relative whose own green card had already been revoked (canceled or taken away), or you turned 21 before you got a green card, not realizing that the category for "children" of permanent residents applied only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, your green card could be invalid.
Another common source of fraud issues arises when green cards are granted based on a second (or third or fourth!) marriage. USCIS might have accepted a divorce certificate as valid in the earlier decision, but now decide to take another look. If USCIS finds that certificate to be invalid after all, the agency can decide that your current marriage—the one you received your green card based on—is also invalid, and that you therefore no longer have a right to your green card, much less to U.S. citizenship.
One of the toughest situations for naturalization applicants arises when an employer used fraud in helping the person obtain your green card. You might not even know if, for example, your employer shredded the resumes of competing U.S. job applicants during the hiring process. Or, you might not have realized the legal significance of your employer failing to pay you the prevailing wage after you showed up to start work.
Again, such problems may come to light during the naturalization application process, casting doubt on your very eligibility for the green card.
Taking short trips outside the United States is one of your rights as a permanent resident. However, if during the required years of permanent residence leading up to your citizenship application, any of your trips lasted six months or more, you've got an eligibility problem. USCIS presumes that a six-month trip (or longer) means that you made your main home in another country and that your period of U.S. permanent residence is no longer "continuous."
Worse yet, USCIS could decide that you not only broke the continuity of your U.S. residence, but "abandoned" your U.S. residence altogether. If USCIS believes you planned to make your primary home elsewhere (regardless of how short or long a time you stayed abroad), it can deny your citizenship and send you to immigration court for a decision on whether you should be removed.
The agency can take this action for any trips you took during your years of permanent residence. For example, if you've been a permanent resident for 25 years, USCIS could review a trip you took 20 years ago and determine you took that trip with the intention of abandoning your life in the United States.
Illegal use or abuse of drugs is a huge issue for any green card holder. Instead of being approved for citizenship, you could be deported for having, at any time after being admitted to the U.S., been convicted of violating (or conspiring to or attempting to violate) any law or regulation relating to drugs (which the law calls controlled substances).
An exception is made for people convicted of a single marijuana offense that involved possessing 30 grams or less for personal use.
Even more dangerous for your case, the immigration laws say that any noncitizen who, at any time after admission to the U.S. has been a drug abuser or addict is deportable. This part of the law doesn't require an actual conviction; if you so much as admit to drug use (perhaps during your naturalization interview—and lying about it could get you into deep trouble, too), or USCIS turns up evidence on a medical report, this could be used as a basis to place you into removal proceedings.
It won't help that marijuana use might be legal in the state where you lived or imbibed it; USCIS still considers this a federal crime. What's more, under the Trump Administration, USCIS updated its Policy Manual (Chapter 5) to assert that employment in the marijuana industry may constitute conduct that violates federal controlled substance laws.
See Can You Be Deported for a Drug Crime? for more on this topic.
If you have been a member of or advocate for the Communist Party or any similar totalitarian party, USCIS might refuse to grant your application for U.S. citizenship. U.S. immigration law requires citizenship applicants to show that they are attached to the principles of the U.S. Constitution and well-disposed to the nation's good order and happiness. (See I.N.A. § 316(a)). This includes the applicant's belief in representative democracy and the basic premise that any political change should be effected in an orderly way.
See Can Communist or Other Totalitarian Party Members Become Naturalized U.S. Citizens? for more on this.
These are the most common situations causing trouble for would-be naturalization applicants, but they're not the only ones. Nolo's book, Becoming a U.S. Citizen, contains more information on this issue. However, there's no substitute for a consultation with a U.S. immigration attorney to examine whether it's safe for you to apply, or to develop a strategy if you'll be taking a risk by applying.