More than 8 million immigrants living in the United States have green-cards and meet all conditions for naturalization, and yet only 8% of them become citizens each year. The reason for this gap is often lack of reliable information about the citizenship process, as well as lack of information about resources available for help. To improve the situation, New America Media and other immigrant-rights organizations have organized campaigns to increase the number of people who become citizens in communities across the United States. For example, Services, Immigrant Rights, and Education Network (SIREN) and their partners have helped over 120,000 people naturalize since 2011, including saving more than $85 million in filing fees for the applicants and holding more than 1400 naturalization events.
Ms. Vanessa Sandoval, Immigration Legal Services Program Director for SIREN, based in San Jose, California, talks about the things to look out for when applying for citizenship in the United States, as well as the benefits of being a United States citizen.
Some of the main things you should know are:
1) Filing fee can be waived. One of the biggest deterrents from applying for citizenship is the hefty filing fee. However, many people do not know that there is a fee waiver available. Low-income applicants can apply for the fee to be waived. There are income requirements that you would have to meet, but if you qualify, you will receive citizenship for free. For example, if you receive food stamps, you are very likely to be approved for the fee waiver.
2) There are waivers and exemptions from the English language requirement. Many people who are not fluent in English are worried about failing the language test. However, it is important to remember that the requirement for the naturalization language test is proficiency, not fluency. In addition, there are waivers and exemptions. For example, if you are 50 years old or older and have been a green-card holder (Lawful Permanent Resident, or LPR) for 20 years, you do not have to take the English language test. If you are 55 years of age or older and have been an LPR for 15 years, you do not have to take the English language test. If you are disabled or impaired, you can apply for a disability exception from the English language test at the same time you are applying for citizenship. Even if you fail the English language test, you are allowed to re-take it once again without re-applying.
3) There are resources to help you prepare for the civics test and exemptions from the test. The civics test consists of 100 questions that are available online with the correct answers. During the citizenship interview, you will be asked 10 out of those questions. You have to answer 6 correctly to pass. There are many organizations, including ethnic community centers, churches, and charities, that offer free or low-fee classes to prepare you for the civics test. United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has resources on their website to help you study. For many people who went to school in the United States, the civics test will be relatively easy, as most questions on it are usually covered by school, college or university classes. You may even be able to take the test in your own language, if you are 50 years old or older and have been a green-card holder for 20 years, or if you are 55 years of age or older and have been an LPR for 15 years. If you are 65 years old or older and have been an LPR for 20 years, you can take a simplified version of the civics test in your own language. Finally, if you are disabled or impaired, you may be exempt from the civics test.
4) You have to show “good moral character”. When you apply for citizenship, the immigration will look into your criminal and personal history for at least the last five years. Certain convictions may not only prevent you from naturalizing, but lead you to lose your green-card. To be safe, it is important to receive legal consultation before applying for citizenship.
5) Only citizens can vote. Citizens are eligible to vote, while green-card holders (LPRs) are not. Therefore, citizens are they only people who have impact on laws and regulations. As a United States citizen and voter, you can shape immigrant-friendly policies.
6) Citizens can travel freely. As a green-card holder, you have restrictions on your travel. You cannot stay outside of the United States for more than 6 months without facing negative consequences such as the risk of losing your green-card. Every time you re-enter the United States as a green-card holder, you are questioned. You may be interrogated, subjected to a criminal background check, and denied entry to the United States. By contrast, as a United States citizen, you can travel freely. You can stay abroad for as long as you would like. Unlike green-card holders, citizens are not subjected to questioning when they return to the United States after a trip abroad.
7) Citizens are treated differently by the courts. There is an important difference in the way the legal system treats green-card holders (LPRs) and citizens. As a green-card holder, you can be deported if you are convicted of a crime. As a citizen, you cannot be deported.
8) Citizens can sponsor children regardless of age. As a U.S. citizen, you can petition for immigration of your children, even if they are older than 21 and married. Your grandchildren can be derivative beneficiaries when you petition for your children.
9) Citizens can sponsor siblings and parents. As a U.S. citizen, you can petition for immigration of your brothers, sisters, and parents. There is no wait time when you petition for your parents. Green-card holders, by contrast, cannot petition for their siblings or parents.
10) Citizens make greater contributions to the country. Citizens not only have the ability to vote, but also tend to be more involved in their communities. Citizens are also eligible for healthcare benefits, housing assistance, loans and other important resources.
These remarks were made during the national tele-briefing “How Citizenship Changed My Life,” organized by New America Media. Participants shared advice and practical tips about important things to know if you consider applying to become a citizen of the United States. The event also featured testimonies from newly minted Americans who have personally gone through the naturalization process in the past year. They described how their lives have changed since they became citizens.
Attorneys at I.S. Law Firm have helped many permanent residents become U.S. citizens. If you are interested in applying for naturalization, please contact us at +1-703-527-1779 or via e-mail: [email protected].