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Residency/Green Cards/Naturalization

Residency/Green Cards/Naturalization

Sections within this essay:

Becoming a Lawful Permanent Resident
Immigration Petition
Immigrant Visa Number
Special Situations
Working in the United States

Naturalized Citizens
Requirements for Naturalization
The Application Process

Appealing INS Decisions
Immigration Reform
Passport Technology

Additional Resources
United States Association for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
United States Department of Justice, Immigration, and Naturalization Service (INS)


The United States is a nation of immigrants; anthropologists believe that even Native Americans (American Indians) crossed an early land bridge from Asia into North America. Many people who come to the United States choose to keep their citizenship, sometimes as a source of connection to their native country; sometimes because they see no need to become naturalized citizens. Those who choose this option can become legal permanent residents (LPRs), identified by the wallet-sized identification popularly known as the "green card."

Many people, especially those who have made their homes in the United States, want to be able to enjoy the same benefits as native-born Americans. To do this, they can become naturalized citizens. A naturalized citizen holds all the rights and privileges afforded to any U.S. citizen, including the right to vote, the right to hold a U.S. passport, and the right to the protection of the U.S. government while abroad. The only right a naturalized citizen does not have, to all intents and purposes, is to become president or vice president of the United States. Naturalized citizens can hold Cabinet posts, however; two of the best known are former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright. There are a number of steps involved in applying for temporary residence, permanent residence, and naturalization.

Becoming a Lawful Permanent Resident

There is much more to obtaining permanent residency than leaving one's home country and finding housing and employment in the United States. Each year thousands of people apply for LPR status, but the United States limits the number of immigrants that it admits. It is not unheard of for an immigrant to wait several years to receive an immigrant visa number, which identifies the immigrant as an LPR.

Some people do not need to get LPR status. Students or people working on temporary projects can get temporary visas that allow them to live and work freely in the United States. Many people who enter the country on temporary visas choose not to leave after the visa runs out; people who do this are in violation of the law and subject to deportation. People who come from another country and wish to make the United States their permanent home need to go through the residency process.

Immigration Petition

The first step in obtaining permanent residency is to have an immigrant petition approved by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). This step is usually taken by a family member or an employer. In certain cases, such as workers with special skills who have come from overseas for specific projects, the immigrant can petition INS directly. Once the application is approved, INS will contact the person who filed the petition

Immigrant Visa Number

After the immigration petition has been approved and accepted by INS, the next step is to obtain an immigration visa number. The petitions are processed in chronological order; the date on which the original petition was filed is known as the priority date. Because so many people apply for permanent residence, the process can take a long time. People can check with the U.S. State Department to get a general idea of how long the process will take. The department publishes a bulletin that notes the current month and year of petitions currently being processed.

Once individuals are assigned an immigrant visa number, they must apply to have their status adjusted to permanent resident. If they are outside the United States when they receive an immigrant visa number, they can complete the process at the nearest U.S. Consulate office.

Special Situations

Immigrant visa numbers are actually awarded on the basis of a preference system. First of all, anyone who is an immediate relative of a U.S. citizen (parent, spouse, unmarried child under the age of 21) does not have to wait for a number; it is granted as soon as INS approves the petition. All other family members are ranked in the following order of highest preference:

  • Unmarried adult children (INS classifies adults as those 21 and above).
  • Spouses of LPRs and their unmarried children of any age.
  • Married children of U.S. citizens, their spouses, and their minor children.
  • Brothers and sisters of adult U.S. citizens, their spouses, and their minor children.

For those seeking LPR status based on employment there is a separate preference system; in order of highest preference it is as follows:

  • Priority workers (people with special skills and abilities, noted professors and researchers, selected multinational executives)
  • Professionals who hold advanced degrees or otherwise have demonstrated exceptional ability in their career.
  • Highly skilled workers and professionals
  • Certain special immigrants, including those in various religious vocations
  • Employment Creation Immigrants, or Immigrant Investors (people with a specific plan to come to the United States and establish a business that will employ at least 10 people)

Another special situation applies to those who qualify for the Diversity Visa program. Every year the United States sets aside 55,000 visas for immigrants from countries that are considered under-represented in terms of immigration volume (typically a country from which fewer that 50,000 people emigrate each year). Anyone who is from one of these under-represented countries can enter the "Diversity Lottery." The application submission instructions and dates are usually posted by INS in August and the lottery is usually held in October.

Those who receive LPR status based on their marriage to a U.S. citizen are considered conditional permanent residents if the marriage is less than two years old on the day LPR status was granted. This is to cut down on the number of people who enter into marriages of convenience simply to remain in the United States.

Working in the United States

Unless an immigrant has won a very different kind of lottery, chances are that he or she will need to work while waiting for an immigration visa number. These people are able to work in the United States if they apply for an employment authorization document (EAD). The EAD proves that the holder is allowed to work in the United States. EADs can be renewed; a person who is waiting for an EAD but has not received it yet may ask for an interim EAD after 90 days. Generally, INS makes its decision sooner than that.

In some cases, a person who is not an LPR may not need an EAD, for example, someone who is authorized to work for a specific employer such as a foreign government.

The EAD is a protection for both the employer and the employee. It is illegal for employers to hire non-citizens who do not have either LPR status or an EAD. As for employees, having an EAD prevents them from being forced to take a job with someone who knows they are not authorized to work and exploits them by paying them below minimum wage, for example.

Once Lawful Permanent Resident status has been granted and a green card issued, individuals may live and work in the United States and travel freely into and out of the country. If they wish to become naturalized U.S. citizens, however, they must prove that they were in the United States consecutively for a specific period of time. A person who travels to an overseas family home every three months and spends three months at a time there cannot apply for naturalization, even if he or she considers the U.S. home.

Individuals who are employed outside of the United States as executives, managers, or specialized consultants may qualify for a L-1 intracompany transfer work visa. If the individual is already in the United States at the time of application, a change of status may be possible. There are no quota restrictions for L-1 work visas.

Naturalized Citizens

Requirements for Naturalization

Only those age 18 or older can apply for naturalization. After that, the first requirement for anyone who wishes to become a naturalized U.S. citizen is residency. An applicant for naturalization must have been an LPR for at least five years. At least half of that time must have been spent continuously in the United States. The applicant cannot have spent more than one continuous year outside the United States during his or her permanent residency and must have lived in the current state or district of residence for at least three months.

The applicant must be able to read and write basic English, and, not surprisingly, must be favorably disposed toward the United States. Moreover, he or she must be deemed to possess "good moral character." People who fail to meet this requirement include the following:

  • Those who have committed a crime, whether against an individual, property, or the government
  • Those who have a record of substance abuse (alcohol and other drugs)
  • Anyone involved in illegal gambling or prostitution
  • Anyone who practices polygamy
  • Anyone who has violated a court order to pay alimony or child support
  • Anyone who has lied to gain immigrant benefits
  • Anyone who has persecuted others (based on race, religion, national origin, or political opinion) while a resident of the United States
  • Anyone who has been deported
  • Anyone who has spent more that 180 days in jail

The Application Process

Anyone who meets the above criteria can make application for citizenship. The first step is filling out the proper forms and submitting the correct accompanying documentation. INS Form N-400 is the standard naturalization form. Applicants must complete the form and send it, along with a fingerprint card, a Biographic Information form (not always required), and two unsigned photographs to the nearest INS office. The fee as of 2001 was $260 (not including any possible charges for the fingerprints ).

Once the form has been examined and accepted by INS, the applicant will be contacted for an appointment with a naturalization examiner. Upon arriving at the application examination, the applicant must fill out another form, the Petition for Naturalization (for which a processing fee is paid). It is during the examination that applicants are asked about the United States, about why they wish to become naturalized citizens, and what they feel their responsibilities will be as U.S. citizens. Some of the questions are quite basic, while others are more involved. Among the possible questions are the following:

  • How many branches are there in the U.S. government?
  • Who was the first president of the United States?
  • How many judges serve on the U.S. Supreme Court?
  • Into which branches is Congress divided?
  • Who is the Congressional representative from the applicant's district?
  • How many amendments are there to the U.S. Constitution?

If the application examiner determines that the applicant is eligible for citizenship, the applicant must appear before a judge for a final hearing. Applicants who are denied citizenship may appear at the hearing and petition the judge, who will then make a final decision.

If all the conditions for naturalization are met, the judge will ask the applicant to take the oath of allegiance to the United States. Often, a number of people take the oath together in the courtroom. Each new U.S. citizen is given a naturalization certificate; once naturalization takes place the applicant no longer needs to carry or renew a green card.

New U.S. citizens need to understand that many countries do not recognize naturalization as entailing the loss of citizenship in another country. Some people may actually be "dual nationals" whose governments do not recognize them as Americans. In some cases, the individual must actually appear at his or her embassy and renounce citizenship in the native country.

One little-known type of naturalization is posthumous citizenship. This is an honorary citizenship given to non-U.S. citizens who died in the service of the United States (in the armed forces, for example). This is strictly honorary and does not confer any citizenship rights upon the person so honored.

Appealing INS Decisions

In the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001, immigration officials have become even more vigilant. A push to reorganize the functions of INS to make the agency run better resulted in Congressional action in the spring of 2002, when the House of Representatives voted to authorize significant changes to the agency. Those seeking updated information on current progress at INS can obtain comprehensive information from the agency's web site,

INS Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) includes the Office of the Chief Administrative Judge (whose office oversees some 220 Immigration Judges across the country), the office of the Chief Administrative Hearing Officer (responsible for hearing cases mostly about illegal employment practices), and the Board of Immigration Appeals (the highest administrative body dealing with immigration law). Many appeals of rejected applications can be handled at one of the 512 regional INS offices across the country, where an immigration judge can issue a ruling.

Because immigration issues are so specialized and complicated, it is a good idea to find either an immigration lawyer (some of whom may offer pro bono services) or an organization that deals with immigration issues. The INS website, in addition to providing updated news, offers a wide variety of explanatory documents on all aspects and phases of the immigration process.

Immigration Reform

As of 2005, there was an estimated backlog of 5.5 million persons who had applied for legal immigration benefits. The 2000 census had previously indicated some 500,000 to 700,000 illegal aliens were settling in the United States each year. Alarmingly, more immigrants came to the United States illegally from 2000 to 2004 than the number admitted with legal status, undermining the efficacy of the entire INS. The cumulative number of illegal immigrants in the United States is estimated at 11 million.

In a post-9/11 world, the Bush Administration made immigration reform a priority. One contentious issue has been the 2,000-mile southwest border of the United States. President Bush proposed a "guest worker" effort for legalizing the status of illegal Mexican immigrants, comprising half of all U.S. illegal aliens. The proposal would grant permanent residency to persons living in the United States for five years, who worked 24 months, passed a background check and medical examination, and demonstrated proficiency in the English language. The Bush proposal also required background checks, but workers would have to apply separately for "green cards" (residency) with no special consideration.

In 2004, Democratic lawmakers unveiled their own similar plan. Both plans required employers to certify that U.S. workers were not available, but one proposal added a requirement that the U.S. Department of Labor first find that employment of foreign workers would not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of U.S. workers. The key differ-ence between the two plans was that the Democratic proposal aimed for permanent residency status of illegal aliens and encouragement of legal immigration for their family members; whereas the Bush proposal for temporary status offered a tax-sheltered account for workers to set aside monies to return home (although they would get credit for Social Security contributions. In return for such a program, Mexico would assist in tightening security along the border.

Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee toughened its stance on illegal immigration and was considering legislation to criminalize illegal status (currently treated as a violation of civil immigration law). Increased security measures, including the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) (the drone Predator B), electronic sensors, night-vision goggles, and increased manpower. By 2006, Congress had approved the construction of a high fence along the entire border, intended to control drug cartels, with additional benefits in controlling illegal immigration.

Passport Technology

In 2005, the United States began testing biometric electronic passports (e-passports). The new passports contain embedded computer chips that hold the same information that is written in regular passports, in addition to a unique digital signature designed to protect the data from tampering or unauthorized access. Two more features were added to later issues, including a digital antenna embedded in the passport cover that will allow remote reading devices to capture the stored chip data. The State Department received several thousand comments that were overwhelmingly opposed to the new passport, primarily based on fears that terrorists with remote readers could identify and target them as U.S. citizens. Additionally, 27 countries resisted the technology, citing privacy concerns.

Additional Resources

DAR Manual for Citizenship National Society, Daughters of the American Revolution, 1998.

Emigrating to the USA: A Complete Guide to Immigration, Temporary Visas, and Employment Beshara, Edward C., and Richard & Karla Paroutard, Hippocrene Books, 1994.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service Dixon, Edward H., and Mark A. Galan, Chelsea House, 1990.

Immigration Made Simple: An Easy-to-Read Guide to the U.S. Immigration Process Kimmel, Barbara Brooks, and Alan M. Lubiner, Next Decade, 2000.

Meeting the Challenge through Innovation U.S. Department of Justice, Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1996.

U.S. Immigration Newsletter. Various 2004–2006 issues. U.S. Department of Justice, Immigration and Naturalization Service. Available online at

Refugee Law and Policy: International and U.S. Responses Ved P. Nanda, editor, Greenwood Press, 1989.


United States Association for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

1775 K Street, NW, Suite 290
Washington, DC 20006 USA
Phone: (202) 296-1115
Fax: (202) 296-1081
Primary Contact: Jeffrey Meer, Executive Director

United States Department of Justice, Immigration, and Naturalization Service (INS)

425 I Street, NW
Washington, DC 20536 USA
Phone: (800) 375-5283
Fax: (202) 514-1776
Primary Contact: James W. Ziglar, Commissioner

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