We frequently hear people question whether it is fair to “grant” citizenship to those in the U.S. illegally. However, whether or not it is fair to create a path to citizenship for these individuals, the naturalization process is far from easy.

The time, paperwork, fees, and general requirements may be overwhelming, leaving many to wonder whether it is even worth the effort to seek citizenship. After all, once you have your permanent resident,  or “green,” card, you can live in the United States and enjoy the benefits of being a Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR). So why become a U.S. citizen?   Before we answer why, let’s talk about how.

There are four ways to obtain U.S. citizenship:

  • by birth in the U.S.,
  • through derivation,
  • through acquisition, and
  • through naturalization.

Citizenship through Birth (inside the U.S. or its territories):

Under United States law, any person born within the United States (including the territories of Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands) is automatically granted U.S. citizenship.

Citizenship through Derivation (“automatic naturalization”):

When a parent naturalizes, his or her children (under the age of 18 and living with the parent at the time) may “derive” U.S. citizenship automatically, provided three requirements are met:

  • the child must have U.S. lawful permanent resident status (“green card”);
  • at least one parent must be a U.S. citizen; and
  • the child must be residing in the United States in the legal and physical custody of a U.S.-citizen parent.

The laws on the automatic naturalization of children have varied over the years. Therefore, determining if automatic naturalization applies is wholly dependent on the law that existed at the time of the parent’s naturalization.

Citizenship through Acquisition (through U.S.-citizen parents after birth, but before age 18):

In some cases, a child automatically “acquires” citizenship even though that child was born outside the United States if “at least one parent is a U.S. citizen at the time of the child’s birth” and several other conditions are met.  

Like citizenship through derivation, the laws related to citizenship through acquisition have changed over the years, so to determine if citizenship through acquisition applies, one must look at the law that was in effect at the time of the child’s birth (and the parents’ birth, if grandparents were U.S. citizens).

Citizenship through Naturalization:
Naturalization refers to the process in which a person not born in the United States voluntarily becomes a U.S. citizen. Most immigrants in the United States become citizens through this process.

Before an individual can apply for citizenship, he or she must meet the following requirements:

  • In general, must be 18 years old and fall into one of the following three categories:

    • Have been a permanent resident for at least 5 years (if green card is obtained through a family member other than the spouse, employment, asylum, or cancellation of removal);
    • Have been a permanent resident for at least 3 years (if green card is obtained through marriage to a U.S. citizen and you are currently married to and living with the same U.S. citizen);
    • Currently serving in the U.S. Armed Forces (or will be filing your application within 6 months of an honorable discharge) and have served for at least 1 year.
  • Have been physically present in the U.S. for a specified time;
  • Have good moral character;
  • Pass English proficiency and U.S. history and government tests, and more.

For a comprehensive list of eligibility requirements, go to the USCIS Guide to Naturalization.

Why Become a U.S Citizen?

On average, almost one million permanent residents apply for naturalization each year. For many immigrants, the United States is the land of opportunity where tolerance and the rule of law are a constant. They often come to the United States looking for a better future for themselves and their children.  In some cases, people come to the United States to escape persecution, conflict/violence and/or poverty. In other cases, people come to the U.S. to work, invest, get an education — in an effort to become more productive and be better members of our society. No matter why or how they arrive in the United States, many become U. S. citizens because they love this country and the freedom it represents.

For more information regarding U.S. Citizenship Benefits and Responsibilities, click here.  

By Published On: April 12, 2018Categories: ImmigrationTags: ,


Avatar of Angela Lopez
Angela M. Lopez is a shareholder and Section Head of the Cowles and Thompson Immigration Practice Group.