What Is A U.S. Citizen?
Before you ask how you can become a U.S. citizen, you should know what a U.S. citizen means. It is similar to many other legal decisions, you should know the consequences of your choice - whether it is adopting your step children or just live together as their step-father, whether it is to plead Nolo Contendere or Guilty to a criminal charge.
Being a U.S. citizen means you pledge permanent loyalty to the U.S. flag, Constitution, government, and laws of the United States and renounce your loyalty to foreign sovereignty. Being a U.S. citizen gives you many rights and privileges. Comparing to the rights of foreigners or aliens living in U.S., citizens generally enjoys lower state and federal tax rate, are eligible for public benefits such as Medicaid, Medicare, SNAP, etc, can own real estate and apply for mortgage, can work, can open bank accounts, can travel to certain countries without needing a visa, vote, and run for public office, may be eligible for lower college tuition, and many other practical privileges. The Immigration and Nationality Act is the backbone of U.S. immigration law. It does not explicitly explain the definition of citizen.
U.S. government also recognizes multiple citizenship so long the other countries also recognize multiple citizenship. For example, China and Norway do not recognize multiple citizenship. A Chinese or Norwegian would have to give up their citizenship when he/she becomes a U.S. citizen. You can have two or more citizenship.
Who is a U.S. Citizen?
The immigration law puts people into two main baskets– (1) U.S. National and (2) Aliens. U.S. nationals are (i) U.S. citizens and (ii) people who are born in the outlying possession of the U.S. –American Samoa and Swains Island. Aliens are creatures from outer space : ). The first time I heard the word aliens was used to describe non-citizens, I had pictures of green creatures with big triangular head and round bulging eyeballs coming out a spaceship in my head. The immigration law explains that if a person is not a U.S. National, then that person is an alien. Thus, anyone who is not a U.S. national is an alien, including creatures from outer space.
Becoming A U.S. Citizen By Birth
INA gives people two options for becoming a U.S. citizen – by (1) birth and (2) naturalization. If you were born in the U.S. territory-including U.S. military bases around the world-, you automatically become a U.S. citizen. Things can get complicated if you are not born in the U.S. territory or one of your parents is not a U.S. citizen.
Scenario 1. Mother is a US citizen. Father is an alien. Mother and Father are legally married. Child is born in a foreign country. The child is a citizen by birth if the U.S. citizen parent has been physically present in the U.S. for 5 years before the Child’s birth. Furthermore, at least 2 of those 5 years must be after the U.S. citizen parent’s age of 14. (INA 301(a)(7).
Scenario 2. Both mother and father are U.S. citizens and are legally married. Child is born in a foreign country. Child is a U.S. citizen if one of the parents has had residence in the U.S. before the birth of the Child.
Scenario 3. Mother is a U.S. citizen. Father is not. They are not legally married. Child is born in a foreign country. If Child born before June 12 ,2017, Child acquires citizenship if the Mother, prior to Child’s birth, was physically present in the U.S. for a continuous period of 1 year. If the Child born on or after June 12, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Sessions v. Morales-Santana, the Child acquires citizenship if Mother was physically present in the U.S. for a period of 5 years, 2 after the age of 14.
Scenario 4. Father is a U.S. citizen. Mother is not. They are not legally married. Child is born abroad. The child may acquire citizenship if (1) paternity is established before Child turns 21, (2) Father was physically present in the U.S. for a period of 5 years before Child’s birth, 2 after the age of 14. Scenario 5. Parents are homosexual and one of them is a U.S. citizen. Child is born abroad. Currently, it is unclear. The government has denied citizenship in this scenario. Many of these cases are pending in federal courts and waiting to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.
There are other scenarios like Child born between a U.S. citizen and a U.S. national, Child born by a surrogate mother who is an alien, etc.
Becoming A U.S. Citizen By Naturalization
- Generally, the following requirements apply.
o You are at least 18 or older.
o Have been a permanent resident (“Green Card Holder”) for at least 5 years.
o Have lived in the U.S. for at least 5 years before naturalization.
o Have lived in the state where you naturalize for at least 3 months.
o Be able to read, write, and speak basic English.
o Be able to pass a U.S. history test.
o Be a person of good moral character.
o Ready to take oath of allegiance to the U.S.
- There are exceptions to most of these general requirements depending on the applicant’s circumstances.
- During the naturalization process, USCIS will go through a detailed background check on the applicant, criminal history, tax, social media postings, employment history, affiliations, and how the original green card was obtained. It is important to know the appropriate evidence to submit along with the application itself. Furthermore, during the interview, the interviewing officer has discretion to determine what constitutes a good moral character and whether the applicant is morally fit to become a U.S. citizen. If the citizenship application is denied due to lack of good moral character or other discretionary reasons, it will be difficult to overcome the initial denial in the subsequent naturalization applications.