Naturalization is the process through which foreign nationals can become U.S. citizens. (A foreign national is a non-American or non-U.S. citizen, and is equivalent to the term "Alien" in U.S. law). A U.S. permanent resident (person who holds a "Green Card") is not a U.S. citizen, but a "Resident Alien" (i.e. foreign national who can legally reside permanently in U.S.A.). Sometimes, persons can below the age of 18 can automatically derive U.S. citizenship from their parents upon their Naturalization. This process, Derivative Citizenship and not Naturalization, involves the undertaking of a complicated analysis by an experienced immigration lawyer and is beyond the scope of this post. (for reasons on why you should consult an immigration attorney whenever you have an immigration issue, see our reasons why it is vital to use an immigration lawyer)
Before foreign nationals can be Naturalized and become U.S. citizens (or "Americans"), they have to have lived in the U.S. for a substantial period of time as permanent residents. (See "Physical Presence" and "Continuous Residence" tests below). While this period of time is normally five years, it can be reduced to three years if the foreign national is living in marital union with a spouse who is a U.S. citizen. (The Naturalization requirements mentioned above are even further relaxed for persons who served in the U.S. armed forces and were honorably discharged). Once Naturalized, the person can travel on a U.S. passport, vote in U.S. elections, and even apply for certain federal jobs for which permanent residents are ineligible. More importantly, the person can never be removed from U.S.A. (deported) unless they are denaturalized, a rare process in which a person is stripped of U.S. citizenship usually because of some fraud that was perpetrated in order to acquire U.S. citizenship in the first place. Because permanent residents are at risk of being removed from U.S.A. if falsely charged with committing a crime (e.g. domestic violence), immigration lawyers encourage foreign nationals to apply for Naturalization as soon as they are eligible.
Physical Presence Requirement
Physical Presence means that that an applicant for Naturalization must have been physically present in the U.S.A. for one in every two days during the applicable lookback period, whether the period is five years or three years. Days spent partially inside the U.S.A. are counted as full days spent inside U.S.A.
Continuous Residence Requirement
Continuous Residence means that an applicant for Naturalization must have not have been outside the U.S.A. for more than six months at any given time in the applicable lookback period, whether the period is five years or three years. Sometimes, persons are absent from U.S.A. for more than six months, but still satisfy the Continuous Residence Requirement because they can prove that the purpose of their trip abroad was compelling and they therefore did not disrupt their Continuous Residence despite having taken a trip outside the U.S.A. that lasted more than six months.
While a person may meet the above requirements and Naturalize on a given day, eligibility may change overnight, especially if the person is accused of committing certain crimes. For instance, if a person who meets the above requirements is charged with committing domestic violence, that person will then have to wait until the charges are adjudicated before being eligible to Naturalize once again. If the charges are severe enough, the person may have to pay tens of thousands of dollars to a criminal defense attorney or face deportation. Unfortunately, despite the safeguards that exist in the U.S. justice system, false charges can sometimes be sustained and end in deportation of a foreign national. Even if the charges can be proven to be false, the cost to hire a criminal defense attorney may be prohibitively expensive for some permanent residents. This means that a person can be ordered removed from U.S.A. (deported) even if that person has been a U.S. permanent resident for the preceding 30 years and was eligible to apply for Naturalization for the preceding 25 years (or 27 years).
The bottom line is that if you're a U.S. permanent resident and think that you are eligible for Naturalization, you should not put it off for another day. We assist countless foreign nationals with citizenship and we will be happy to personally assist you with your application as well. Drop us a line at Lawyer@MurrayLawNJ.com or call us at (888)354-6257.