You can’t deport a U.S. Citizen. This is what I tell my clients, and if you’re a Lawful Permanent Resident and eligible for Citizenship, this is what I’m telling you. In my last post, I talked about a story of a former client who immigrated to the U.S. as a toddler, always ‘felt’ like she was a U.S. Citizen but never actually took the steps to becoming a U.S. Citizen. Long story short, she got deported, and it would’ve never happened had she applied for Naturalization.
Why do people wait or not apply at all? Number one reason is procrastination. Second reason is cost. To both I say enough is enough. No more excuses. My mother waited 30 plus years before she became a Citizen. And ever since I was 18, she would tell me who to vote for at the polls from the sidelines as a Permanent Resident.
Why wait? You can vote in State and Federal elections and if you hurry and apply now, you’ll probably swear in just in time to help pick our next President. You’ll also be able to petition for family members that you might not have been able to petition for before and for some family members the processing times are faster (but beware Filipino Permanent Residents who have pending petitions for unmarried children over 21, but that’s for a later post). Another benefit of becoming a U.S. Citizen is working for the Federal government – one of my clients wrote a Google review for us, and he said that now that his wife is a U.S. Citizen, she’s able to give back by being a Federal employee. I love that!
Ok, so you know you should apply for U.S. Citizenship, but how do you do it?
Step One: Determine if you’re eligible
You have to be:
- at least 18 years of age or older;
- a Permanent Resident Card (“Green Card”) holder for at least 5 years; or
- an applicant who has been a Lawful Permanent Resident for at least 3 years, and has been married to and living with a U.S. citizen for at least three years,
- living within a state, or a USCIS district that has jurisdiction, for at least 3 months prior to filing the petition;
- a person of good moral character; and
- an individual who is able to read, write, and speak basic English.
A couple of points here:
- Good moral character for U.S. Citizenship encompasses a VERY broad area so if you’re not sure about this, consult with an immigration attorney for evaluation. For example, if you have a criminal charge or conviction and you’re still on probation, you might not be eligible for Citizenship at this time.
- Your travel – if you’ve been out of the country for more than six months, then you might have to wait to apply for Citizenship.
Step Two: Get the Documents You Need Together and File it!
You will need the following documents in order to file for U.S. Citizenship:
- Form N-400 – Please do not pay for this form online! It can be downloaded for free at uscis.gov or you can make an Infopass appointment at uscis.gov and go pick the application up or you can call the USCIS 1-800 number and have the form mailed to you, but whatever you do, don’t pay to download this form;
- two passport-sized color photographs with your name and “A-number” written lightly in pencil on the back of each photograph – pencils don’t work that great on these pictures, so you can use a sharpie pen or something else. Just write lightly;
- a photocopy of both sides of your Permanent Resident Card;
- a check or money order made out to the Department of Homeland Security for the USCIS filing fee. That fee as of the date of this blog post is $680 – this fee also includes biometrics. You should ALWAYS double check the fee for any application you send to USCIS, because fees do change. Usually, they go up, but sometimes they go down. And if you send the wrong fee, then your application is coming right back to you without being processed by USCIS. The current fee schedule can be found at uscis.gov.
- if you’re filing for U.S. Citizenship at the three-year mark, because you’ve been married to a U.S. Citizen for three years and have been living with your spouse for three years, then you also need to submit proof that the two of you have been residing together. Proof can include documents such as your three years’ income tax returns, copies of bank statements, utility bills, and mortgage statements with both names and your address.
- if you’re applying for naturalization based on military service, please check back here for an article specifically about those requirements.
The trend that I see a lot when Naturalization clients come to me is they have everything ready to go, but their N-400 Application has been sitting on their nightstand for months, maybe even a year. And it’s due to uncertainty. Is this you? You’re ready to file, but something is holding you back – you’re not sure if the application has been completed correctly, maybe you’re waiting to find out the exact date your husband got divorced from his ex, or perhaps you got a speeding ticket, and you’re not sure if this minor traffic infraction has to be listed on the N-400. If you’re not sure about your application, have an immigration attorney look at it or if you don’t want to go to a lawyer for whatever reason, there are other options available as described in my previous post, like making an Infopass appointment at your local USCIS office.
So, you’re at the hardest step here in my opinion, and that is to actually mail the application off. The easiest thing can sometimes be the hardest! Before you mail your application and all of the documents you’re sending with it, make sure you make a copy of everything. I am surprised to find that clients who have spent a lot of time completing the N-400 fail to make a copy of it before mailing it to USCIS. When you mail it off, it’s gone, and it will be difficult to get a copy from USCIS so take the extra step and photocopy everything.
Which USCIS office you mail your application to depends on what state you live in, so be sure to check the form instructions. A final recommendation here is to send your application via Federal Express or some other certified mail so you can track your package. And don’t forget the filing fee check!
Once you file your application (and this is simply done by mailing it in with the correct fee), you will receive a receipt notice from USCIS acknowledging that your N-400 has been received and fee’d in for processing.
Step Three: Biometrics
Approximately, 3-4 weeks after USCIS receives your application, USCIS will send you a biometrics appointment notice. The appointment notice is for you to go to your local Application Support Center and have the following taken: digital fingerprints, signature and photograph.
You know what the fingerprints are for, don’t you? Yes, a criminal background check will be done. Let’s back up a second, and hopefully, this part doesn’t apply to you. If you have ever been charged, arrested, convicted, or had any issue with the law, this background check is going to reveal it, and the Immigration Officer will know about it when he or she is interviewing you. Even if the incident happened 20 years ago and turned into a dismissed charge or maybe you got arrested and didn’t even get charged, you must list it on your application. If you don’t list any arrest or charge or conviction, because you are trying to conceal it OR more likely, you have just plain forgotten about it, this is an omission that will most likely lead to a denial of your N-400 application based on lack of good moral character grounds. Even if it was a charge that was dismissed, don’t leave it off the N-400 application.
Potential clients as of late have been calling me with a denied N-400, wondering if there’s anything I can do to help. The main reason for the denial is due to some forgotten charge or conviction long ago in the person’s past. Nine times out of ten if the person had put down the arrest, charge or conviction on the application, it would have led to approval and not a denial. That’s how important it is to be as accurate and truthful as you can on the N-400 application. If the Officer finds that you omitted an arrest, then you will have to wait another five years before applying for Citizenship. There are exceptions of course, but they are hard to prove.
If you’re not sure of your criminal record history, don’t know what happened when it’s a good idea to do an FBI background check. The couple of months’ delay will be well worth it if it reveals something you had completely forgotten about. Oh, and just to throw a little more complication into the mix, sometimes the FBI background check won’t reveal all of your criminal history, so be careful.
Step Four: Attend your interview and take the English and Civic tests.
Within about 4-6 months after filing your N-400 application, you will receive an interview notice from USCIS informing you of the date and time to take your English and Civic tests.
The test consists of:
- Reading a sentence in English
- Writing a sentence in English
- An oral examination of 10 random questions you studied from the 100 or so questions in your civics questions. You need to get 6 out of 10 correct in order to pass.
If you do not pass the first time, don’t worry, you get another shot at it a couple of months later (for free – you don’t have to pay or apply again). But you only get two tries so try to pass the first or second time around! There are a lot of study materials on uscis.gov and well worth printing out. You can also go to your local USCIS office for study materials.
Also at this interview, the Immigration Officer will go over your N-400. If something has changed since you filed for Citizenship, then you can update it with the Officer. Also, you get a second chance to tell the Officer about any arrests, charges or convictions if you forgot to put them on your application. If this applies to you, then you need to have a certified disposition of the outcome. You can get a certified disposition from the Clerk’s Office of the courthouse that decided your case.
You’re not going to like this, but if you have an arrest, charge or conviction, even if it seems minor to you, you need to have an immigration lawyer look over your application and criminal history before filing. There are numerous reasons for this. The number one reason reason is you don’t know whether your conviction is a deportable offense. Or an aggravated felony. I know I’m throwing out some scary terms – that’s because they are scary. And at the beginning of this post I was all about ‘file for Citizenship now!’ And for a lot of you, yes, that is still my opinion. But, for those with a criminal record, you need to proceed with caution -extreme caution!
Okay, okay, let’s assume you passed all the tests and there are no issues with your application or eligibility. Step five is fun!
Step Five: Swear In and Become a Naturalized U.S. Citizen!
If you’re at Step Five, you have received a notice in the mail from USCIS informing you of your swearing-in notice. Here in Norfolk, the swearing-in location is typically the Federal Courthouse in Downtown Norfolk, but sometimes the local office mixes it up a little bit and has swearing-in ceremonies at other venues. Like once, they had a swearing-in ceremony for kids at the Norfolk Zoo. It was a hot but fun day.
The thing to remember about the swearing-in ceremony is that if anything changes between the time you have your interview and the date you go into swear-in, you may have to bring additional documentation to the swearing-in ceremony. For example, if you get married, bring your marriage certificate; if you get a speeding ticket, bring the certified disposition; if you travel out of the country, bring your foreign passport. Hopefully, you get the idea.
The ceremony itself takes a few hours, depending on how many people are swearing in that day. I would not bring small children to this ceremony. I have a one-year-old, and I know she would not be able to last through the whole thing. My six and eight-year-old might not last either. It’s an exciting and momentous occasion for you and your adult family members and friends, but not so much for the little ones.
There a lot of intricacies and issues I did not cover in this post about becoming a U.S. Citizen through the naturalization process. If you have any specific questions about the process, leave a comment – I will be happy to answer them.
The most important points I’d like you to take away from this post are the following:
- Don’t procrastinate – apply for U.S. Citizenship now if you’re eligible
- If you’ve stayed out of the U.S. for extended periods of time, you might have to wait to apply for U.S. Citizenship
- If you’re on any type of probation you have to wait until it’s over before you can apply for U.S. Citizenship
- If you have any type of criminal conviction, talk to an immigration lawyer before applying for Naturalization
Please don’t be like my mom and wait 30+ years before applying for Citizenship. I wish you the best of luck!
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