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Gaining U.S. citizenship and the ability to remain in the U.S. is a very present and real concern for foreign nationals.  What is the difference between “naturalization” and “permanent residence”?  Most U.S. born nationals confuse naturalization with U.S. permanent residence.  Naturalization is the process of applying and gaining U.S. citizenship, whereas U.S. permanent resident is the process of gaining the ability to continuously reside and work in the U.S.  The two are quite different – U.S. citizens have benefits that are unavailable to U.S. permanent residents.  Even U.S. permanent residents who wish to become U.S citizens who have achieved a milestone in the gaining long-term residence in the U.S may be unaware of the differences, and have yet to embark upon the steps required to become “naturalized” U.S. citizens.


This brief article will touch upon the three main reasons why a foreign national may wish to seek U.S. citizenship, and the three potential hurdles in the process that may limit the ability to do so.


First, gaining U.S. citizenship often means ease of travel to foreign countries.  Many foreign nationals come from countries where there are limitations to travel, and a visa is often required to go to a third country.  U.S. citizenship and a U.S. passport affords the ability to travel more freely to certain countries, and also avoid the scrutiny that may come from securing a new visa, or traveling to visit a home country from which the individual may have escaped past persecution.


Second, U.S. citizenship allows sponsorship of specific family members to immigrate to the U.S.  Some foreign nationals have immediate family members such as a mother or father, brother or sister, and children, whom they wish to sponsor to join them in the U.S.  Only U.S. citizens may have the ability to sponsor certain family members to come to the U.S.  There may be long wait due to quotas that the applicants are subject to, as well as delays in processing, but becoming a U.S. citizen is the first step to allow them to secure the ability to petition for their family member to come and stay in the U.S.  According to the Congressional Research Service report on U.S. family based immigration policy, in fiscal year 2013 U.S. citizens have sponsored approximately 650,000 family members to gain legal status to live and work in the U.S.


Third, U.S. citizenship is a means to participate in civic life in the U.S. as a full and qualified member.  Activities such as the right to vote, the right to serve on a jury, and the ability to hold certain government jobs all require U.S. citizenship.  The incentive to gain U.S. citizenship opens up the possibility of benefits as well as responsibilities as a participating member of American society.


What are some of the pitfalls to be aware of as you consider the option of applying for naturalization?


Although most applicants for U.S. citizenship face a straightforward process, some applicants may need to be aware of how past history and circumstances may impact their ability to gain U.S. citizenship.  Here are some of the common concerns that arise:


Divorce and child support payment obligations.  Often if there is a divorce or child support responsibility borne by the applicant, the applicant should consider the impact this may have on her U.S. citizenship application.  Detailed documentation to demonstrate that she has been meeting any ongoing obligations will help.  The U.S. government takes seriously failures on the part of the applicant to pay child support or other financial obligations in connection with a divorce, and it may impact the applicant’s ability to gain U.S. citizenship.


Any arrest or conviction on a criminal matter, even if the matter was closed or a final disposition rendered, may impact the application for naturalization.   The applicant should be aware of the impact a criminal arrest or conviction may have on his ability to naturalize, and review the details to determine whether the arrest or conviction will be a bar to his application.  Certain crimes may be considered aggravated felonies or a crime involving moral turpitude that may impact the applicant’s chances of gaining U.S. citizenship.


The timing of when to apply for naturalization is important.  For a U.S. permanent resident to meet the requirements to apply for citizenship, she must meet the physical presence and continuous residence requirements.  If the applicant has traveled or resided abroad for over six months or a year, this may break the continuity of residence for purposes of applying for U.S. citizenship.  Timing also matters if she applies too early, before meeting the requisite period of residence in the U.S.


In considering the option of applying for U.S. citizenship, it’s important to keep good records and review the timing of when you intend to apply in order to have a clear roadmap and to avoid pitfalls along the way.