By: Rishi Oza, Partner, Robert Brown LLC
With the 2008 Presidential campaign now in full swing, both John McCain and Barack Obama have discussed major reforms to the immigration laws of the United States. Each candidate have made proposals to solve the problems that have arisen due to the influx of undocumented foreign nationals through the nation's borders, need for workers in a variety of industries including agricultural to high technology fields and the desire to have families united after long time periods spent apart. One important aspect that has escaped scrutiny from the immigration debate is arguably one of the most important features of the system: citizenship and naturalization.
Becoming a U.S. citizen is the crown-jewel of the immigration system. Naturalization confers the ultimate right to those living permanently in the United States who are not already citizens: the right to vote and decide the system of government that oversees and enforces the laws of the country. Fundamentally, a person becomes a citizen through two primary means: (1) by birth or (2) through naturalization. Almost everyone born in the United States or those born to U.S. citizen parent(s) abroad are citizens of the United States. Those not citizens by birth must naturalize to become citizens, meaning that they must undergo a specific process that is designed to analyze an individual's residence in the United States, their understanding the nation's history and English and a check of the applicant's background to determine whether he/she is of good moral character.
In order to naturalize, an individual must first be a lawful permanent resident ("LPR") of the United States (also known as a "green card" holder). Most individuals must be an LPR for at least 5 years before applying to naturalize. If an applicant is married to a U.S. citizen, an application may be made upon being an LPR for 3 years. Once an applicant meets the LPR time requirement, the US Citizenship and Immigration Service ("CIS") will then see if the applicant has undertaken any actions to abandon their residency in the United States, such as leaving the country for too long. Trips for more than 6 months can endanger the needed continuous residence needed for naturalization eligibility. An applicant also needs to be physically present in the country for at least half of the 3 or 5 year time period and a resident of the state in which applying for at least 90 days prior to application.
Assuming the residency, physical presence and LPR time requirements are met, CIS will also examine whether an individual is a "person of good moral character". This check entails a comprehensive background review including review of any criminal activities in one's past. Criminal convictions and arrests do not necessarily stop an individual from naturalizing, but can expose the applicant to potential problems that may need to be reviewed before an Immigration Judge before proceeding with naturalization. Background checks are conducted by a variety of government agencies and are often the single greatest time delay associated with the naturalization process, as CIS does not schedule an applicant for their interview until the background check has been completed.
Once the background check is completed, the applicant is scheduled for an interview. At the interview a USCIS Officer reviews the application for any updates insures compliance with the legal requirements for naturalization, administers both the US civics and history test, and a basic English language ability test. The history test requires an applicant to answer questions about the past and present history of the United States, while the English test requires that an applicant read, write and speak in the English language. Waivers for these exams are available to elderly and those incapable of learning, some waivers may require evidence from a physician as to the applicant's inability to learn. The final steps of naturalization involve the administering of the oath of allegiance, which in most instances an applicant will do before a Federal Judge at an oath ceremony normally a few weeks following the interview. Once sworn in a person is officially a citizen of the United States.
Once having navigated through this process, an applicant is free to join the debate and fully participate in the direction of the country. As a nation, the United States is best when citizens fully participate in our valued democracy. Citizenship and naturalization is an important step in fully participating in the nation's democracy and keeping the United States strong and prosperous. Being a citizen is a necessary step to allow your voice to be heard and your vote to be counted!