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Naturalization Requirements, Eligibility and Common Causes for Concern

August 14, 2018

The United States has specific requirements that must be met in order to apply for naturalization (U.S. citizenship).  Generally speaking, a non-U.S. citizen must be a lawful permanent resident (“green card” holder) of the U.S.A. for a period of five years prior to being eligible for naturalization.  If the foreigner is married to a U.S. Citizen who is the same citizen who sponsored them for lawful permanent resident status, then they may apply for citizenship after three years of being a permanent resident.  Non-U.S. Citizens may also be eligible for citizenship as a result of enlistment in the U.S. Armed Services.  For purposes of this piece, we are not going to address citizenship through military service.

There are additional requirements to citizenship other than simply being a lawful permanent resident for a specific period of time.  An applicant must also actually be physically present in the U.S.A. for 30 months of the five years prior to filing for naturalization (18 months if applying based on marriage to a U.S. Citizen).  While travel abroad during the continuous residence time period is permitted, the applicant must not have been absent for more than one year for any travel period and must be able to demonstrate for any absences of between 6 months and one year that he or she maintained residence in the United States.  If the applicant does not meet the residency requirement, then he or she should wait until such time as they have met the residency requirements in the 5 years prior to application.  If not, the application for naturalization will be denied.  In some cases, particularly where there are long absences or significant periods of time where the applicant is outside the United States, filing for naturalization might not only result in a denial; it could also result in USCIS moving to terminate permanent resident status.

Another potential problem for naturalization applicants is meeting the "good moral character" requirements for naturalization.  Criminal activity and convictions often prevent applicants from meeting the required good moral character for naturalization.  Voting by a Non-U.S. Citizen is also grounds for denial of naturalization, particularly if the applicant voted in the 5 year period prior to applying for citizenship.  Many applicants get into trouble when they are automatically registered to vote by the DMV when applying for a driver’s license.  Being registered to vote in this manner is not in itself a problem as long as the alien does not actually vote.  Criminal convictions and activity, including "run-ins" with law enforcement, even where charges were ultimately dropped or dismissed, require special consideration when applying for citizenship.  Certain convictions are automatic grounds for denial of naturalization and will very likely result in institution of removal proceedings.  Other convictions within the 5 years statutory lookback period will result in a denial of the application and an instruction to apply again after five years of good moral character.  It is imperative to consult with an immigration attorney prior to filing for naturalization (or filing any application) with USCIS if there has been any criminal arrest, citation, or conviction, as the potential consequences can extend far beyond a simple denial of the N-400 application. 

Finally, I cannot stress strongly enough that you must be honest on any application for immigration benefits, including applications for naturalization.  Earlier this summer, USCIS and the Department of Homeland Security announced that a task force was being implemented to review suspect cases for potential denaturalization if there was fraud or error in the underlying grant of permanent residence that formed the basis for naturalization.  In this time of increased immigration enforcement, it is essential to ensure that all paperwork is factually accurate and contains honest answers to the best of the applicant’s ability and knowledge.  I also recommend that you seek advice from immigration counsel prior to filing any application with USCIS.

Annie Lahren is a Pender & Coward attorney focusing her practice on immigration law, civil litigation and family law.

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