Law Talk Episode 17: Citizenship and Naturalization

In this episode of Law Talk, Andrew and Trent discuss all the ins and outs of the citizenship and naturalization process for U.S. immigrants!

Andrew Michael: All right, there we go. Facebook had a little hiccup there, but we are ready. It is Wednesday, it is 11 o’clock. It is Law Talk time. I am here with Trent. And the basics of what we’re gonna cover today on Law Talk are naturalization and becoming a US citizen.

Andrew Michael: So I guess the first thing I wanna ask is like what is the reason that an immigrant would wanna become a US citizen? Like they’re already a permanent resident, what are the basics, like rights, powers they get by becoming a citizen? What do they gain by going through the naturalization process?

Trent Powell: Sure. So someone who naturalizes to become a US citizen enjoys the same rights that a person who gains citizenship through birth get to enjoy; the right to vote and kind of the right to travel, because there are residency requirements when you’re a permanent resident to maintain your permanent resident status.

Andrew Michael: You have to like renew it, you have to go through all these hurdles, that kind of stuff.

Trent Powell: Sure. And crucially there are limitations for how much time you can spend abroad, because the idea of being a permanent resident is that you reside in the US. It’s right there in the name. And so there are time limits where if you spent too much time out of the US, you lose your permanent resident status. And if you’re a citizen, you’re free to come and go in and out of the US as you please.

Trent Powell: There are also … A citizen can’t be deported for instance. So those would be sort of the-

Andrew Michael: The basics.

Trent Powell: … the biggest things. But any rights that you enjoy as a natural born citizen, you can enjoy as a naturalized citizen as well.

Andrew Michael: Okay, cool, so it’s pretty much always recommended that if you’re going to live in the United States, you want to be on path toward citizenship, kind of.

Trent Powell: Sure. I mean I guess for some people they wanna maintain their allegiance to their home country. Maybe there are certain things that they enjoy from being citizens in their home country, that they wouldn’t enjoy if they became citizens of the US, I’m not sure. But yeah, I would say for the most part if you’re here, especially if you’re married and you have kids, I mean, yeah, I would imagine that most people would wanna become citizens.

Andrew Michael: All right, cool. So let’s start at the very beginning. What is the general … Like what’s a broad overview of the citizenship process? So I know we were talking earlier about the first real step is becoming a permanent resident, either by entering as a family member to a US citizen or like-

Trent Powell: Employment.

Andrew Michael: Employment. There’s a bunch of different way. Basically you wanna get a visa to get into the United States and then gain that permanent residency green card status. So do you wanna talk sort of about like the common starting places that people take? So for example the employment-based, the family-based … I’m actually … Do asylum holders gain permanent resident status, and like have a path towards citizenship? Just sort of talk about like step one, what is the most common place people start their citizenship process at?

Trent Powell: Sure. So I guess the main idea here is that you have to be a permanent resident for a certain amount. So however you gain residency, that would be the starting point.

Trent Powell: You asked about asylees, so once someone is granted asylum, they are asylees for one year, and after being an asylee for one year, they can apply for a permanent residence. And at that point they accumulate time as a permanent resident-

Andrew Michael: They just-

Trent Powell: … [crosstalk 00:04:21] eventually become a citizen.

Andrew Michael: Yeah, yeah. So what about people who enter on a family visa for example. Like my mother is a US citizen, but I’m a citizen of Germany or something, I enter, I gain my permanent residency, what’s my timeline look like for gaining citizenship? It’s five years at that point, right?

Trent Powell: Yeah, it’s five years for most scenarios with having permanent residence, although I don’t know the stats on this, but I imagine that a lot of people acquire permanent residence through marriage to a US citizen-

Andrew Michael: Yes, like the K1, the spousal visas, that kind of stuff.

Trent Powell: Yeah. Although that’s a little different. But if you get married and then you petition for your spouse, someone who’s already your spouse not your fiancé, to come to the US, they would enter and they would have to accumulate three years as a permanent resident before they could apply for citizenship.

Andrew Michael: That’s cool.

Trent Powell: And so yeah, I don’t know the stats on how … like what percentage of people acquire green cards through marriage versus other forms, but I imagine through marriage is a pretty high amount. So I guess I’m hesitant to say that most people, they have to wait five years, ’cause I imagine there’s a good amount that only have to wait three years. And those would be spouses of citizens.

Andrew Michael: But in general, it’s like a relatively short process. It’s like three to five years of permanent residency before you can file for citizenship.

Trent Powell: That’s correct. That would be the starting point to determining whether or not you’re eligible to apply for citizens. It’s the five or three requirement depending on how you got your residence.

Andrew Michael: Okay. So transitioning away from that a little bit. Let’s talk about the actual citizenship process itself. So there’s a couple steps that citizenship applicants generally go through. I guess we can just sort of chat about each of these steps individually really quick, just to get like a broad overview of the citizenship process in general.

Andrew Michael: So the first thing that I know USCIS, the Citizenship and Immigration Office, generally asks you to check is am I already a citizen? So I think their common example is like if you are under 18 and you’re parent is a citizen. So do you wanna just sort of talk about like things that would automatically qualify you as a citizen even if you’re living abroad, or like-

Trent Powell: [crosstalk 00:06:59] Oh, yeah.

Andrew Michael: Yeah. ‘Cause that seems like something that commonly trips people off, is like am I already a citizen? Or can I already file for it?

Trent Powell: Sure. And man, you could do a whole talk on-

Andrew Michael: Oh, I’m sure.

Trent Powell: … the different ways that you could acquire citizenship through birth, because there’s a lot of nuance there. But yeah, I mean generally speaking, if you have a parent who is a US citizen, and they were a US citizen at the time you’re born, and they meet certain requirements, and those certain requirements depend on the year that you were born, it’s-

Andrew Michael: [crosstalk 00:07:31] There’s a lot of-

Trent Powell: … very complicated. Yes, there is. But yes, that’s true, if one of your parents was already a US citizen, or both, were already a US when you were born, regardless of where you were born, you could already be a US citizen.

Trent Powell: And the other things would be if you came here with a parent, and you were a lawful permanent resident when you were a child under 18, and your parent applied for naturalization and became a citizen, you may have also became a citizen at the same time that your parent-

Andrew Michael: [crosstalk 00:08:10] Because you are a child under their care when they became a citizen.

Trent Powell: Yeah, exactly, yep.

Andrew Michael: I know-

Trent Powell: [crosstalk 00:08:14] And you were also a lawful permanent resident.

Andrew Michael: Yes, yes, yes. Another would be like for example getting or being born on US soil of some kind seems to be another common way. And I think that covers of the like by-birth generalizations. What are the rules around that by the way? Just sort of like getting … Like if I’m born in Texas and both my parents are aliens, would that be a citizen or like-

Trent Powell: Yeah, uh-huh. So yeah, the only time that it wouldn’t apply I believe is if your parents are here as diplomats-

Andrew Michael: Oh, that’s interesting.

Trent Powell: … and I might not be stating that correctly. That might not be the only example.

Andrew Michael: They are very specific like-

Trent Powell: [crosstalk 00:08:53] Yeah, but I do know that that is one of them. And so like yeah, if your parents were here as diplomats, or one a diplomat and the spouse of a diplomat, and you were born in the US, you would be a citizen of the country of your parents. But yes, generally speaking, regardless of the status of your parents, if you are born in the US, you are a US citizen.

Andrew Michael: Ah, that’s cool.

Trent Powell: Yeah.

Andrew Michael: So let’s move to the next step. After you’ve decided oh, I’m not actually already a US citizen, what are the qualifier for eligibility? Like what makes me eligible to become a US citizen? We discussed the like permanent residency for five years thing for example, is there anything else that like you need to get done in that five year time period to be eligible for citizenship, or-

Trent Powell: Well, the inverse of that would be what not in five years-

Andrew Michael: [crosstalk 00:09:53] Yes, that’s also something important.

Trent Powell: … But as far as something that you would proactively do, well there is a language and civics test requirement, and so if you don’t already know English, you would need to learn English. Yeah, so I mean that would be something that someone could proactively do during their years as a permanent resident if their plan is to apply for citizenship would be to become proficient in the language spoken most commonly in the US being English, and to also study up on the civics portion of the process.

Andrew Michael: And this sort of leads into the next step, which is actually filing your application, because the biggest requirement for filing your N-400 is proving that you are a good citizen, it seems like. Which is commonly called … Oh, what was it again? Good moral character.

Trent Powell: Good moral character, yeah.

Andrew Michael: So that seems like another step you could take towards your application, and that in between time is gaining that you possess good moral character. So for example like community service, not committing crimes, so can you sort of talk about that good moral character requirement a little bit?

Trent Powell: Sure. The big thing about showing that … like positive equity for being a person of good moral character, that would be more applicable in a situation where you have committed a crime. So it’s basically show that you are reformed, you’ve learned your lesson, etc. And I’m sure we’ll talk about it later on, but there are some crimes that you simply can’t overcome, and there are some crimes that have temporary bars but some that are also part of the temporary bar also make you deportable. And so that would mean that if you were to apply for citizen, they might just say, “Oh, look, you’ve definitely committed crime that makes you deportable,” and put you in removal proceedings.

Andrew Michael: Oh, that’s [inaudible 00:11:58].

Trent Powell: Yeah.

Andrew Michael: Oh. That’s fine just ignore it. My camera being dumb for some reason.

Trent Powell: Oh, okay. But yeah, I mean it never hurts, I mean you should aspire to be a good member of whatever community it is that you live in regardless. So involvement in volunteer organizations, your church. Yeah, I mean all of that stuff. It certainly wouldn’t hurt.

Andrew Michael: Yeah, it definitely helps.

Trent Powell: Yeah.

Andrew Michael: I’m interested … So does good moral character not like directly apply for people who don’t have a criminal history then? Like is there that much of a burden of proof for it, or is it just?

Trent Powell: Well-

Andrew Michael: Like let’s say I’m already a good citizen already, do I need to go the extra mile and prove my good citizenship, like without a criminal record, or-

Trent Powell: Absence of criminal record, no. Although-

Andrew Michael: It certainly helps.

Trent Powell: … I don’t know … Yeah, if even absent like a conviction record, you know, your … any sort of arrest or anything that you’ve ever done that could technically be considered a crime, could theocratically come up. I mean but no, I guess is the short answer.

Andrew Michael: Yeah, we can discuss the specifics of like filing for citizenship with a criminal record like later in the podcast. But for right now let’s move on to sort of like fingerprinting, security checks. Like what else happens in between filing your application and your actual interview? ‘Cause I know like one thing you need to do is like go to … Is it an FBI office or something? And like get fingerprinted or … Like what’s the in between steps that happen up to-

Trent Powell: No, you would go-

Andrew Michael: … the interview?

Trent Powell: … to USCIS to take biometrics. And that is part of the N-400, but you would have also done that when you became a permanent resident as well. It’s a step in almost every process with emigration is-

Andrew Michael: Yeah, I know-

Trent Powell: … to get your fingerprints taken. And they do, they run it against all the criminal databases that they have. And that’s the reason why they do it.

Andrew Michael: It’s just for like a background check kind of thing.

Trent Powell: Yep, mm-hmm (affirmative).

Andrew Michael: Okay. So what about the interview itself? You’ve gone through the entire process up until this point, what comes up at the citizen interview? ‘Cause I know don’t you take that … like tests themselves like around the time of the interview or like what are the things that happen around the time of interview, the citizenship test, that kind of stuff?

Trent Powell: Yeah, so that would be where they would confirm your English proficiency for instance. And that would also be when they would bring up any issues in your past where they would bring up whether or not you’ve been reformed if you have had any trouble in your past. If theocratically they could … If you acquired your green card through marriage and you’ve been divorced, they could kind of interview you at that time, and see if they can … and they’ll determine … and they can determine whether or not you enter into the marriage fraudulently for immigration-

Andrew Michael: Yeah, that seems like-

Trent Powell: … [crosstalk 00:15:49] purposes.

Andrew Michael: … a big thing for USCIS, is like fraudulent marriage, both visas and citizenship.

Trent Powell: Yeah, and actually that’s one of the few instances where your citizenship can be revoked if it was found that you acquired anything through the process via fraud.

Andrew Michael: Yeah.

Trent Powell: Yeah, so yeah.

Andrew Michael: Okay. So final step, the oath of allegiance ceremony. What are like the basics of it? I actually don’t know much about the ceremony itself.

Trent Powell: Sure, you take a oath saying that you have allegiance to the United States and its Constitution, that you are revoking any allegiances that you have. That would be your country of native … you country of birth, where you were previously a citizen.

Andrew Michael: Okay. Like can your family come to it? Is it like a super big event or is just you and some guy in a room with an American flag?

Trent Powell: No, I think it’s a pretty open event. Yeah.

Andrew Michael: Yeah, I know actually … So I go to UVA, and I think they actually have citizenship-like events like the oath of allegiances, like in our observatory or something.

Trent Powell: Really?

Andrew Michael: Yeah, it’s something pretty cool. Maybe it’s on Monticello, I can’t remember.

Trent Powell: There are some many nice things there.

Andrew Michael: Yeah, oh my god, Monticello. Yeah, so let’s sort of delve, now that we’ve gone through the whole process, what are the most common things you see like from a legal standpoint relating to citizenship? I know we’re talking a lot about sort of the criminal background, there’s getting divorced in between like permanent residency and citizenship. Just sort of like what are the most common things you see. Let’s start with the criminal background.

Trent Powell: Yeah, I would say that in my experience, that’s the most common issue that comes up. People concerned about traffic tickets on up. Traffic tickets by the way not a problem. I mean if you’re not arrested for it and the penalty is under 500 or something like that, $500 fine, then it’s fine.

Andrew Michael: But you need to report it.

Trent Powell: Yes.

Andrew Michael: You need to report everything, ’cause that’s a big thing. It’s like if you leave something off your application.

Trent Powell: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. But yeah, so a lot of people understand that there is like a five year look back, which is true, because that’s the time requirement for being a permanent resident before you can apply to be a citizen.

Trent Powell: So there’s some misconceptions on that as well. I mean it’s generally true that most crimes that are crimes involving moral turpitude that are committed more than five years, don’t present a permanent bar to citizenship. But what’s really important and should be known and something that we make sure that we advise people who want to become citizens, is that there are crimes that are considered crimes involving moral turpitude, but also crimes that make a person deportable.

Andrew Michael: So could you define crimes involving moral turpitude really quick, just before we move through this a little more? It’s hard, it’s-

Trent Powell: [crosstalk 00:19:20] that’s really tough-

Andrew Michael: … very specific.

Trent Powell: … to define. It’s so tough to define in fact that a lot of times we rely on decisions in federal courts that have determined whether or not a crime qualifies as crime involving moral turpitude.

Andrew Michael: It’s one of the things that is like based on precedent more than like any set statute definition.

Trent Powell: Exactly. And it involves the elements of the crimes which that’s a whole another subject in law. So it’s-

Andrew Michael: It basically boils down to like violent crimes against other people, right? Kind of, or?

Trent Powell: Oh, no, it could be much more than that. It’s a lot bigger variety than that. So like dog fighting, let’s see. Like theft, shoplifting, crimes where your morality could directly be judged. Simple assault-

Andrew Michael: Really anything that like puts your good moral character standing in a bad light, kind of.

Trent Powell: Yeah, uh-huh. Yeah, and I don’t know if I’d hesitate to … I’d hesitate to maybe say it is broad, but it kind of is. like I said, there is … I get these updates everyday about Federal Court decisions in the field of immigration. And there are so many of them that are about … this court has ruled this statute in this state qualifies as a crime involving moral turpitude for immigration purposes.

Andrew Michael: Okay. So it’s kind of down to like the discretion of the judges and the officials involved, kind of, where it’s like again very much set in precedent.

Trent Powell: Yeah, yeah. So that is true in the sense that there are lists of crimes and you could go state by state going down the statute. I mean we have a reference sheet where a violation of this code section in Virginia qualifies as a crime involving moral turpitude. And even that has caveats within that.

Trent Powell: So it’s pretty interesting, and that does … So when a person comes in and they do have a criminal record, the first thing that I do is we take fingerprints, and we send it to the FBI. I can’t remember what they call them. But it’s through the FBI, and they return to us a person’s rap sheet, basically, with the code references in all the different states that they have had a criminal record in. And we have to research whether or not those crimes are deportable or qualify as a crime involving moral turpitude, or qualify as an aggravated felony.

Andrew Michael: Yeah, ’cause that’s where you were about to get into earlier. It was like applying for citizenship with a deportable crime can get you deported, kind of.

Trent Powell: Yeah, absolutely. They could instead of approving your citizenship place you in removal proceedings in immigration court. The most prevalent examples, I believe they’re in Section 2-37 of the INA. So domestic violence and drug crimes. Those are technically crimes involving moral turpitude. But even if they happened over years in the past, they’re still deportable offenses for someone with lawful permanent residence.

Andrew Michael: ‘Cause they don’t just look at the last five years, they look at everything, they just heavily scrutinize the last five years.

Trent Powell: Exactly. That’s kind of the big thing is that you don’t … there are a lot of instances where just hitting the five-year mark doesn’t really exonerate you. I mean even for the ones that aren’t deportable, they can still analyze whether or not you are reformed citizen, if you learned your lesson, if what you’ve done with your life in those five years … Yeah.

Andrew Michael: Okay. So let’s move over to the divorced question that I asked earlier. So sort of talk a little bit about I gained permanent residence with my you US citizen spouse, then we got divorced, I wanna be a citizen now. Sort of talk us through that process a little bit.

Trent Powell: Well, I guess what’s important is that you technically do still qualify and can become a citizen even if you divorced from the person that you got your green card through. But it’s almost certain that you will be scrutinized. So you do have to provide some sort of proof that the marriage wasn’t fraudulent, which you do anyway to acquire your green card, but you getting divorced might be a red flag. Your spouse would be able to provide evidence one way or the other, whether or not it was a fraudulent marriage. So that would be something worth discussing and preparing for if you do wanna apply for citizenship.

Andrew Michael: It’s not something that’s like insurmountable though. Like you definitely still get citizenship, there’s just an extra burden for proof kind of.

Trent Powell: Yeah, that would be a good way of describing that, yeah. I mean you would wanna be proactive though-

Andrew Michael: Oh, I definitely.

Trent Powell: We would send in an N-400, which is the citizen application with proof showing that the marriage was indeed genuine and not fraudulent.

Andrew Michael: Okay. So let’s start wrapping things up. I have a few final questions. So we talked about this a little bit before we started here. But like what’s the general cost from permanent residency to citizenship? ‘Cause I know we were talking it’s like a couple thousand dollars. Do you have anything like specific for like what goes where, like for example the N-400 filing fees, just sort of talk about the cost a little bit.

Trent Powell: Yeah, so the N-400 is $640 filing fee, that’s the government fee. And I believe it’s anyone under 75 would also have to pay a biometrics fee, which is $85.

Andrew Michael: Of course there’s like medical fees, ’cause you need to have like your vaccines, all that kind of stuff. There’s attorney fees. There’s a lot of associated things with it.

Trent Powell: Sure, yeah but I mean that’s kind of the ones that we have set in stone. It all depends on the attorney you use, where you live of course, it probably affects how much an attorney charges. Yeah, yeah, it could vary a little bit. I mean as far as most processes go, it’s one of the more relatively straightforward ones. I mean we do for instance charge, if we have to do some sort background check and analysis.

Andrew Michael: It’s just my camera being dumb again. That’s fine.

Trent Powell: I think … That was mine, that was winking. I think it just went off.

Andrew Michael: That’s so weird. I think they’re running out of storage space on the card for some reason. I’ll check and do it later. It’s fine. We still have audio, it’s just being dumb.

Trent Powell: Yeah, that’s fine. Yeah, let’s see. Oh, yeah, so I would say that there would be an extra cost if we’d have to do some sort of legal analysis and research into someone’s criminal history. Absolutely. So that could be an extra cost as well.

Andrew Michael: Okay. And one final question, what’s just sort of like the general timeline that someone would be looking at for filing their application, ’cause I know like two of the most popular articles on our website are actually like when do I get my citizenship thing afterwards. So like what’s the general timeline look like?

Trent Powell: Generally, I would say 6 to 12 months, but it can be a little tough to predict how fast these things go. I mean there is … We’re always able to look at USCIS processing times, but even that, that’s just kinda tells you how long they’re taking now, whenever you look it up. It’s not a completely great indication just to how long your case itself will take. [inaudible 00:28:21] If they have RFEs or if they wanna see additional things-

Andrew Michael: RFEs by the way were the additional evidence.

Trent Powell: Request for Evidence. Yeah, RFEs.

Andrew Michael: Yeah, I think that takes what an additional … it adds like a couple months on your application or something like that, just because-

Trent Powell: It depends on how long it takes for you to get back with them, so yeah.

Andrew Michael: Yeah. All right. I’m trying to think. Is there anything else that we wanted … Was there anything else you wanted to add? Just sort of looking at what we discussed.

Trent Powell: Yeah, something actually that’s important to know is that unless you’re here on a non-immigrant visa, you should apply for the Selective Service System. And in fact, if you were here as a permanent resident during the ages of 18 to 20, they’re 18 to 25 or 18 to 26-

Andrew Michael: Something like that.

Trent Powell: … and you didn’t register with the Selective Service System, then that could be counted against your good moral character-

Andrew Michael: Oh, really?

Trent Powell: … actually. Yeah.

Andrew Michael: So even if you’re a permanent resident, not even a US citizen, you still need to file for selective service, or register for it?

Trent Powell: Yeah, that’s correct.

Andrew Michael: Oh, I actually didn’t know that. That’s really interesting.

Trent Powell: Yeah, I do think that that’s pretty interesting as well. But that would be something that you should definitely be aware of if you’re here as a permanent resident-

Andrew Michael: Oh, definitely.

Trent Powell: … as between the ages of 18 and 25 or 26. Now, if you arrive here as a permanent resident after those ages, you don’t have to worry about that. And I think it only applies to males as well.

Andrew Michael: I think … I can’t remember. It’s something you should definitely look into though-

Trent Powell: Yes, absolutely.

Andrew Michael: … [crosstalk 00:30:11] the age range.

Trent Powell: Yeah, absolutely, yeah.

Andrew Michael: All right, I think that’s about it for today. We’re about a half an hour, so nice long Law Talk. Thanks for joining us. It’s been really fun talking about naturalization stuff. I’ve definitely learned a lot. So-

Trent Powell: Yeah, no problem.

Andrew Michael: We’ll see everybody next Wednesday, same time, 11 o’clock, and thanks for coming.

Trent Powell: Thanks, bye.

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