I Hereby Declare, on Oath...(Part 2)
Do all green card holders eventually become U.S. Citizens? Why or why not?
Happy Holidays to all of our readers! Before we start this week’s newsletter we just wanted to take a moment to thank everyone for all the support and interest we have received after kicking off our Immiwonk project just a few short months ago. Going forward we have lots of plans for new topics, new formats, and maybe even some multimedia content further down the road. So please stay with us as we continue to develop and grow next year!
This week we are going to address an important question: Do all green card holders eventually become U.S. citizens? While U.S. law outlines a clear process for permanent residents (green card holders) to become U.S. citizens, it is not a requirement. You can live in the United States with a green card for your entire life as long as you follow the restrictions, don’t vote, always file your taxes, and don’t commit a serious crime. While the benefits of citizenship are many, there are also benefits to retaining a foreign citizenship while living in the United States, and not every country in the world is willing to let you maintain your foreign passport if you are also carrying a U.S. passport.
A more lengthy discussion on dual-citizenship can be found here, but in a nutshell we find that dual-citizenship tends to work better for families that still spend a large amount of time abroad, because a lot of the convenience of holding a green card is contingent on “residing” in the United States. In particular, you can lose your green card if you spend more than six months out of every year outside the United States, and more than six months of time outside the United States during the period before you apply for citizenship can reset the 3 or 5 year residence requirement to apply for naturalization. If you are a U.S. passport holder, you can freely enter and leave the United States without worrying about these restrictions, and live abroad as long as needed for family or professional reasons. For those who live in the United States for the majority of the time, holding the green card indefinitely feels less restrictive. Over time the proportion of green card holders who go on to naturalize versus those that choose not to has changed quite a bit, as you can see below.
So, you have decided that obtaining U.S. citizenship is the right choice for you! What are the potential issues that can arise during the application process? For most people who meet the basic residency requirements and have spent the majority of that time in the United States, navigating the citizenship process is fairly simple. You file your N-400 form with USCIS (you can file this form completely online, which is a nice contrast to many other forms for which USCIS still requires a paper submission), then wait usually 12-16 months for the citizenship interview to be scheduled. The vast majority of naturalizations are performed at ceremonies hosted by the USCIS Field Offices, though there are some overseas ceremonies which mostly involve military service members and their families. Many citizenship interviews are over quickly, with the ceremony scheduled a few weeks after. As we mentioned last week, naturalization ceremonies are a lot of fun and should be attended when possible by anyone who is interested in the immigration system. Thanks for Dr. Raj for a fairly recent example of the type of items we provide alongside the new citizen’s citizenship certificate:
Unfortunately the citizenship process is not so smooth for everyone. Historically Mexican green card holders who are eligible for naturalization, in particular, have application rates far below those of other immigrants. The reasons for this are many and probably deserving of some serious research, but for our purposes we will look at some Pew data as it tends to support our hypothesis: the English language requirement is a major barrier.
This is not to say that the English language requirement is not a major barrier for other populations as well, it certainly is! We have found that Chinese and Vietnamese family-based applicants who arrive in the United States later in life also struggle with this requirement. In comparison, Indian applicants and those from anglophone Caribbean countries have a major advantage on this portion for obvious reasons. Let’s clarify what this requirement consists of: The citizenship exam includes two portions, the civics test and the English reading and writing test. Much has been made of the changes to the civics test this year, but in practice it is not a major impediment to most applicants for citizenship simply because the answers and questions are available to anyone online. It’s a test you can study for and memorize the proper answers, and most applicants do exactly that (and you would too if you had paid over a grand in fees to get to that interview). The reading and writing test are similarly easy to prepare for, if you have elementary English reading and writing skills you are usually able to read and then write a fairly simple sentence with less than a dozen words.
The problem with the English speaking/listening requirement is that it encompasses the entire interview. It’s one thing to follow some simple questions about your name or date of birth, or memorize questions and answers for the civics test. It’s entirely another level to follow an open-ended and complex line of questioning regarding your immigration history or criminal history. If at any point the interviewer believes that the interviewee does not understand or comprehend the questions that they are asking, they can stop the interview on the grounds that the applicant lacks English knowledge. If this happens again during a follow-up interview the citizenship application is denied, though with no prejudice against the filing of a future application.
Based on the most recent data here you can see that N-400 denials are about 13% of the total number of N-400 applications processed. Likely most of these are for failing the English requirement. A unknown larger number of people who are aware of this requirement probably just don’t apply. Learning a new language is hard, and Americans in particular are famous for undervaluing this important skill. That being said, we do include a couple of exceptions to this requirement, mainly for those who are long term green card holders. Depending on your age and the length of time you have held your green card, you can avoid the English language requirement entirely and take only the civics test, which is then conducted in your native language. For those who obtained their green card many years ago and are firmly established in the United States, this is a good option and we often find people who are willing to wait a few years to apply in order to qualify for these exceptions rather than go through the arduous process of learning a new language.
The other common exception is the medical/disability exception. In order to qualify for this exception you must file an additional form alongside your citizenship application. In this form a medical professional will conduct a physical and mental examination of the applicant and then provide their findings for review by the immigration officer. Everyone is different and some people have disabilities that make it impossible for them to meet certain requirements, and the system does allow for that.
Next week we will kick off the New Year with our next piece on naturalization. “Good Moral Character” is probably not something you generally associate with applying for citizenship, but it is an important, perhaps the most important, factor in who gets their citizenship applications approved. Join us next week where we dissect this important aspect of naturalization law, and hopefully provide some answers on how to receive a positive finding so you can advance to the final step!
In the news:
Refugees Shouldn't Monopolize the Immigration Debate - When I first read this headline my knee-jerk reaction was to write it off as a typically Bloombergian take on immigration as some kind of zero-sum affair between immigrant groups or categories. While the article itself makes reasonable points, I just don’t think it is productive to frame it that way. If we are saying we have to choose between this immigrant or that immigrant, I don’t agree with that. Those limits are self-imposed. I will concede, however, that the appetite for discussion of “immigration” in the Biden White House may be finite. In that sense it may be worth considering where activists want to focus their efforts first.
Pandemic’s toll on NYC schools serving new immigrants: Fewer students, less money, waning services - The knock-on effects of this pandemic are starting to come into focus and things look dire. Plummeting enrollment and funding cuts for programs and institutions that support immigrant communities. Advocacy organizations turning into defacto relief distribution organizations or even food banks. The students themselves are facing increased pressure to curtail their education to support their families financially, and many immigrant families have lost breadwinners due to their disproportionate exposure to COVID as “essential workers”. The new administration will need to get creative with their aid programs to mitigate all this damage.