Lawful permanent residents or “green-card holders” enjoy many legal benefits and protections in the United States. They can petition for their spouses and their unmarried children to immigrate to the United States. They can work lawfully at most jobs, travel to and from the United States without needing special visas or travel permits each time, and qualify for many social security and other benefits depending on their age and work history. Once a person is granted a ten-year green card, keeping their permanent status in the United States is generally just a matter of following the laws and intending to maintain their primary home in the US. For the most part, a person keeps their residency unless they voluntarily give it up, or it is taken away by an immigration judge.
However, there are limitations to lawful permanent resident status. For example, a resident might put their status at risk if they spend more than 180 days outside the United States in a single trip. Even shorter trips might be problematic if a person’s travel history suggests they don’t have an intention to have the US be their country of primary residence. Certain activities or criminal convictions might lead to a resident being subject to removal proceedings and deported from the United States. Unlike citizens, residents cannot petition for their parents, their siblings, or their married children to immigrate to the United States. Additionally, residents are not eligible for participating in some of the basic elements of civic life in the United States – notably, they cannot vote in federal elections or serve on juries.
Because applying for U.S. citizenship can provide more security and a stronger political voice for U.S. residents, many green-card holders eventually decide to do so. It is important to make that decision carefully as there are numerous situations where a person might be better off prolonging or forgoing an application for citizenship.
For example, some green-card holders have family members who are already in the process of immigrating through them. If those green-card holders become U.S. citizens, they may be delaying or ending their family members’ chances of immigrating to the US. A common situation in family-based immigration processes is that a green-card holder might submit an immigration petition for their spouse who has no permanent immigration status in the United States. That category of petition can include the spouse’s minor children as well. However, if the green-card holder becomes a citizen before the process is completed, then the children would no longer be eligible to be included in their parent’s marriage-based petition. They would each need their own petitions and, depending on their age and circumstances, they might not qualify anymore. Another example happens with asylum cases. When a person is granted asylum in the United States, they can oftentimes apply for their spouse or children to be granted asylum status as well. Having asylum in the United States can help a person to eventually become eligible for a green card, and then to apply for citizenship down the line. However, if the main applicant becomes a citizen before their family members have been granted green cards, the family members would no longer be eligible for asylum-based green card applications.
In addition to how obtaining U.S. citizenship might affect family members, there are other considerations. Most applicants for U.S. citizenship must pass an exam on the history and government of the United States and show basic English language ability in reading, writing, and communication. If a person’s English skills are developing, they might benefit from extra time to study, or possibly from waiting until they obtain a certain age and time with a green card to help qualify for an exemption from the English requirements. Being approved for citizenship usually requires showing “good moral character,” especially in the five years before submitting the citizenship application. Some applicants might benefit from waiting five years after an arrest, conviction, tax issue, or other negative mark to limit the risk that it could lead to a denial of their application. Other applicants might have criminal, fraud, or other concerns that might make a citizenship application an uphill battle no matter how much time has passed. Some of those issues might even put a person’s green card at risk.
To be sworn in as a U.S. citizen, there is also a requirement to take an oath renouncing loyalty to the person’s country(ies) of former nationality. This is largely a symbolic gesture as most foreign countries don’t automatically see that oath as a formal renunciation of citizenship there. However, dual citizenship can pose some complications for international travel and taxation, and some countries might even force you to give up citizenship there if you obtain citizenship elsewhere.
The decision to apply for citizenship can be a complicated one and may require the guidance of an experienced attorney. If you have questions about the citizenship process, please contact one of our MMH attorneys at 312-427-6163.
The material contained in this alert does not constitute direct legal advice and is for informational purposes only. An attorney-client relationship is not presumed or intended by receipt or review of this presentation. The information provided should never replace informed counsel when specific immigration-related guidance is needed.
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