US Citizenship Requirements

Murali Bashyam: Good morning.  My name is Murali Bashyam.  I’m a partner with the law firm of Bashyam Spiro, and I’m here with Ame Coats, who’s a senior counsel with our firm.

Ame Coats: Hello everybody.

Murali Bashyam: And we handle corporate and family immigration law in all 50 states and around the world.  And Ame and I are here today to discuss to the road to citizenship.

Ame Coats: Today, we’re going to go through just the basics of citizenship, really, what the benefits are, the requirements for most folks, the English and Civics test; we get a lot of questions on that, and, also, just general application interview and post procedures.  The basic requirements for citizenship; first, you have to be 18 years old to apply for your application.  Most people have to have had permanent resident status for five years before they file.  In a lot of cases, you can actually file three months before your anniversary as a green card holder, but you just have to be careful about that.

Now, spouses of U.S. citizens, they’re in a different situation.  And as long as you have been married to a U.S. citizen, had your green card for three years, you’ve been married to someone who has been a U.S. citizen for three years, then you only have to wait three years to apply for your U.S. citizenship.

Murali Bashyam: We get this question sometimes, Ame, a person wants to apply for citizenship, they were married to a U.S. citizen for maybe a year and a half or maybe two years during that time, and they ask whether they can file after three years?

Ame Coats: So what you’re asking is at the time of their three-year anniversary, they’re already separated from their spouse?

Murali Bashyam: Correct.  Yeah…

Ame Coats: No, you have to be living with your U.S. citizen spouse and sharing your life together to be able to file, otherwise, you have to wait for five years to file.

Murali Bashyam: So when you say “at least 18 years old to file”, what happens if I’m 25 and I’ve got a young child?

Ame Coats: There is something called ‘The Child Citizenship Act’, and, basically, it says that when a person gets their citizenship, any children that they have under the age of 18, who already have green cards and reside with them, and they have custody of those children, those children automatically becomes U.S. citizens.  At that point, the way to get evidence of their citizenship is to file for a U.S. passport.

Oh, and, by the way, members of the U.S. armed forces, they don’t have to wait as long, either.  But usually at the base where the serviceman or woman is stationed, they have a designated point of contact who is responsible for filing the citizenship applications for service members.  So, usually, I don’t see those cases here at the office because those are handled by someone on base.

Okay, residency requirements; now, this can trip people up.  One of the first requirements is you have to be residing within the state or the USCIS district for three months.

Murali Bashyam: Before you can file the case, right?

Ame Coats: Right.  So if you move across the country from California to North Carolina, you need to be living in North Carolina for three months before you file.  So, sometimes, people aren’t aware of this requirement and they file on their own.  For example, I’m working on a case right now where a gentleman did this; he just didn’t know.  So I mean he wasted all that money.

Murali Bashyam: So what happens – how does someone prove that, what do they have to present to the USCIS officer?

Ame Coats: Well, I mean it’s not so much – it’s gonna be right there on your application because you have to list your last five years of residency, and they’re gonna see it right there.  Now, if you’re like right on the line, then they may ask to see your driver’s license, they may ask to see your lease, you know something like that.  But I think you have to be really, really close to the three months, as shown on your citizenship application for them to even question it.

As far as physical evidence goes, half of that either five- or three-year period has to be in the United States; your feet physically have to be on U.S. soil for half that time.  And then the other residency requirement concerns your absences.  I mean if all of your absences are less than six month, each trip is less than six months, you’re not gonna have any trouble.  Now, this is in a three or five year period.

Murali Bashyam: Now, you’re talking about the continuous presence or residence requirement?

Ame Coats: Right.  That’s right.  Uh-huh.  But if you have any trips that are between six months and one year that were taken within that five or three-year period, then the government is going to make a presumption that you break the continuouse presence requirement.  You can overcome it, but it’s tough.  I really prefer not to file cases in this situation.  Now, if you have an absence of more than one year, that automatically breaks it, and there’s really no way at that point to fix it.

Now, there is an application that you can file before you leave for your trip to try to preserve your residency, but most people don’t think about that ahead of time.  They only think about that after they’re ready to file for citizenship, and by that time, it’s sort of too late.

Murali Bashyam: And these are two different topics; one is preserving your residency, and the other is filing for citizenship.  And some people think that filing for your reentry permit, if you go – even though that allows you to go for over a year, that does not make it okay when you file for U.S. citizenship.

Ame Coats: Right.  Exactly.  And that’s a common issue to trip up these types of cases.  The other major requirement that you have to meet is good moral character.  Now, the immigration services are not prohibited from looking at your moral character over your entire lifetime; they can do that.  And if you’ve got something that’s very bad that’s within the five or three-year period, then they’re going to look at that.  And if you can’t show that you’ve been rehabilitated, then that could affect your citizenship case.

The other thing is if you’ve got something that’s really serious that’s outside this time period, something that could get you deported, not only will they deny your case, but they’ll put you deportation proceedings.

Murali Bashyam: So the point is if you’ve got anything in your background, you definitely should speak with a qualified immigration attorney first.

Ame Coats: Yes.  I mean don’t underestimate it.  I mean I saw someone who filed their application on their own who had four bounced checks charges.  And they didn’t think that was a big deal because in the real world, it’s not a good thing to do, but it’s not anything that’s gonna get you locked up for years and years, but this was a huge problem for a citizenship case.  And he was able to overcome it once he hired a immigration attorney, but still, that just shows you right there.

Murali Bashyam: I mean good moral character, isn’t that pretty subjective?

Ame Coats: Well, it sort of is.  I mean if you have committed one crime of what they call ‘moral turpitude’ in that three or five-year period, then that pretty much prohibits you from establishing good moral character.  But there are some things that the courts have not ruled to be crimes of moral turpitude, but the government could still have an issue with it.  For example, a DWI, that’s not technically a crime of moral turpitude, but that could be something that would stop you from getting your citizenship, and that is really at the discretion of the officer.

I’ve seen people with one DWI within the three or five-year period get their citizenship.  But once you’ve got two or more in that period, that’s problematic.  The other thing that could come up from time to time is if the service finds a problem with the applicant’s old green card case.  So there are two things that come up routinely here.  The one thing that I see from time-to-time is when someone gets their green card through their employer, but when you look at their employment history on the naturalization application, they actually never worked for that employer after they got their green card.  This is a problem.

The other thing that I see come up is when the applicant got their green card through marriage to a U.S. citizen.  And let’s say that this person has gotten divorced at this time, and you look at the divorce judgment, and the divorce judgment shows a separation date when they had previously put out to the immigration service that they were still together.  So that can happen, too.  Like in North Carolina in the divorce judgment, it shows the date that you were separated or that you were separated for at least one year before the divorce was filed.  And so if, previously, you had represented to the government that you were still living with your spouse during that time, that can be a problem.

Murali Bashyam: So the point being if you get your green card approved, when you file for naturalization, it doesn’t mean you’re automatically clear with regard to your permanent resident status – if you’ve had issues in the past?

Ame Coats: They can still go back and look at that.  So, selective service is an issue, too, I mean, generally, if you didn’t have a green card – you’re a man and you did not have a green card between the age of 18 to 26, even if you were in the United States, that’s not gonna be a problem.  But if you did get your green card during that period and you haven’t registered; register, unless it’s too late.  And then if it’s too you late you register; you have some explaining to do.  There’s some things you need to do and you should get an immigration attorney.

The other thing is failure to pay child support or to pay your taxes.  I wouldn’t file a client’s case if they are not on a payment plan with the government if they owe taxes.

Murali Bashyam: If we did not answer any of your question, please do feel free to contact either me or Ame; our e-mail addresses and telephone numbers are on your screen right now.  I do encourage you to visit our medial library and do connect with us on Facebook and Twitter.  We will have a webinar coming up next month on what to do about changing jobs during a permanent residency process and how that impacts the process.  Thanks everyone for joining in today.  We hope you have a great day.

Ame Coats: Thank you.

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