This is a copy of an article I was asked to do for a small local paper and the topic (while very vague) was simply, “How do I become a citizen?” Obviously this topic was a little large to cover in a single article but here is the very brief summary.
How Do I Become a U.S. Citizen?
To start answering this question, you need to begin with the most basic steps. The two ways to become a citizen of the United States are through birth or through naturalization. Becoming a citizen through birth is as easy as it sounds, as long as a child is born within the United States. Essentially if the child is born here, he or she is a citizen. In fact, many people do not know that the United States is among the minority in the world which allows for unconditional birth right to citizenship, regardless of the status of the child’s parents. In fact, almost no countries in Europe allow for unconditional birth right to citizenship, if the child is born from two illegal immigrants.
However, when asked, “How can I naturalize,”? the answer becomes more complicated. This is a loaded question. There are so many avenues to gain citizenship that it can be hard to narrow the topic down to a single article. For instance, one may gain citizenship through an asylum petition or through a family member. However, unless they have been involved in immigration, most people do not realize that before an alien can naturalize, he or she must first gain legal permanent residence.
Generally, an alien from a foreign country must first gain a visa before entry into the United States. These visas are categorized into many subcategories but the most general are “immigrant” and “non-immigrant” visas. An example of a non-immigrant visa would be an HB1 visa which is a work visa. This type of visa is designed to allow a foreign native to come into the United States for a temporary time in order to work. The idea behind a non-immigrant visa is that the alien does not intend to permanently stay in the United States. An example of an immigrant visa would be a family based visa. These visas allow certain legal permanent residents or U.S. citizens to bring family members to the United States. A family based petition may be the most common way in which a foreign native becomes a legal permanent resident in the United States and then naturalizes.
In order to immigrate to the United States using a family based visa, the first step is to have a relative, who is in the United States, to file a family based petition. The order and time which it will take to complete the process depends upon the relative in the US, his status, and the alien’s relationship to that relative. For instance, if the alien is considered an immediate relative, then the processing time is much shorter. For example, a U.S. citizen who files for his mother, who is considered an immediate relative, can expect an average wait time of eight months. The wait will be dependent upon the processing time of the particular office that handles the petition. However, if the alien is not considered an immediate relative, then the wait time is dependent upon the preference category which the alien falls under. The preference categories are organized as follows:
- Family First Preference (F1): Unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. citizens, and their minor children, if any.
- Family Second Preference (F2): Spouses, minor children, and unmarried sons and daughters (age 21 and over) of LPRs. At least seventy-seven percent of all visas available for this category will go to the spouses and children; the remainder is allocated to unmarried sons and daughters.
- Family Third Preference (F3): Married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens, and their spouses and minor children.
- Family Fourth Preference (F4): Brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens, and their spouses and minor children, provided the U.S. citizens are at least 21 years of age.
Once the family based petition is filed, the alien must then wait for their priority date to arrive. This may take several years depending upon the preference category. Once the alien has arrived in the United States, he has acquired legal permanent resident (“LPR”) status and may soon begin the path to naturalization.
The naturalization process may begin at different times depending on how an alien gained legal permanent resident status. For a family based visa, not including a visa through marriage, an alien may begin the process after five years as a legal permanent resident so long as the alien meets all other requirements. This process begins with filing an N-400 form and then is followed by a background check, finger printing, an interview, and finally taking an oath.
This particular way of entering the United States is only one avenue. There are many avenues by which to gain citizenship including some for undocumented aliens. Some of these avenues include asylum, or trafficking visas. However, the entire process can be complicated at times, so as with all legal matters, it is best to consult with an attorney before undertaking the adventure.