KNOW YOUR RIGHTS: The Path to Citizenship

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By MARK YOSHIDA

American citizenship is the most valuable status our nation bestows, with U.S. citizens enjoying the highest level of rights, privileges, and freedoms guaranteed by our country. For foreign-born immigrants, citizenship is the final and most important step in their journey to America.

Mark Yoshida

Most citizens today obtain their status simply by being born in the U.S. However, permanent residents (immigrants who are permitted to live and work here indefinitely) may become citizens through “naturalization,” a process where a resident meets certain requirements and files an application. Unless and until they become citizens, residents have limited opportunities to express their opinions and concerns in a meaningful way.

Why become a citizen?  Although some residents are content with their status in the U.S., many benefit greatly by naturalizing to U.S. citizenship. For example, citizens have the right to vote and can actively participate in issues that affect them, their communities, and the nation.

Citizens may sponsor a wider range of family members for immigration than permanent residents can, and the waiting periods are usually significantly shorter. Citizens may apply for jobs that require citizenship and even run for certain public offices. Citizens may live outside the U.S. indefinitely and are not subject to deportation.

Citizens do not have to bother with the burden, time, and expense of renewing their green cards. Perhaps most importantly, citizens identify themselves with our nation’s principles and traditions, giving themselves a strong, lasting sense of security and community.

Of course, naturalization is a personal decision. A typical applicant expends time, effort, and money in the application process. He/she may also have to give up citizenship to his/her former homeland. Applicants should carefully weigh the pros and cons in order to decide what is best for them.

Naturalization process: A resident’s path to citizenship begins with making sure he/she meets all the requirements for naturalization. Then he/she completes and files U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (CIS) Form N-400, the “Application for Naturalization.” CIS then schedules the applicant to have his/her fingerprints taken.

Next, the applicant meets with a CIS officer, who reviews the applicant’s N-400 and interviews the applicant to make sure he/she meets all the naturalization requirements. The officer also tests the applicant’s English skills and gives him/her an examination on “civics” (U.S. history and government).

If the applicant passes the interview and exams, CIS schedules him/her for a swearing-in ceremony where the applicant pledges allegiance to America. The resident is now a citizen. For most applicants, the entire process takes five to six months.

Naturalization requirements: In order to become a citizen through naturalization, an immigrant must 1) be at least 18 years old; 2) have been a permanent resident for at least 5 years; 3) have resided in the U.S. for at least five years (or three years if he/she is married to a U.S. citizen); 4) have been physically present in the U.S. for at least two and a half years; 5) show he/she has good moral character; 6) be able to speak, read, and write simple English; and 7) have an understanding of U.S. government and history.

Some applicants may skip the English requirement. Applicants who are at least 55 years old with at least 15 years of permanent residence, or are at least 50 years old with at least 20 years of permanent residence, do not have to speak, read, or write English. They may bring an interpreter to their interview.

Getting help: The Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC), a member of the Asian American Center for Advancing Justice, will join with Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC) to provide citizenship application assistance on Wednesday, May 30, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at LTSC, 231 E. 3rd St., downtown Los Angeles. The assistance is free.

At the workshop, APALC’s immigration staff and trained volunteers will review each attendee’s eligibility for citizenship and complete their citizenship applications. Applicants also will have their photos taken for the application.

Space is limited for this workshop. For more information and an appointment, call LTSC at (213) 473-3035, Monday through Friday, between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. The deadline to schedule an appointment is May 29 at 3 p.m. Applicants who are unable to attend may call APALC at (213) 977-7500, ext. 224 for an appointment at its office in downtown Los Angeles.

For more information about citizenship or to find out about APALC’s other naturalization workshops, view APALC’s “Citizenship 101: Your Guide to Citizenship.”  Additional information is available on the CIS webpage.

None of this information should be construed as legal advice. Because every person’s situation is different, and because citizenship laws and rules occasionally change, readers are strongly advised to seek the services of an experienced immigration attorney for assistance and information.

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Mark Yoshida is a senior staff attorney in APALC’s Immigration & Citizenship Project.  As an attorney, he helps immigrants become U.S. citizens. Yoshida also handles general immigration cases such as permanent residence applications and directs clinics for the Korean, Vietnamese, and South Asian communities. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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