This past August, I attended a citizenship ceremony in Ithaca and was so happy when I realized one of my former clients was included in the row of immigrants standing in the front of the courthouse taking the oath of allegiance. She was an Indian national who I had provided advocacy for regarding her citizenship application in 2012. We had initially met during a legal consultation that resulted in me providing her some legal advocacy through our local congressman’s office. Through their efforts, I found out her case was still pending due to a FBI “name check” and her case had succumbed to something that almost resembles a black hole.
I eventually would attend an immigration conference and inquired about her case because the extraordinary amount of time the background checks were taking seemed cruel. I found out there had been some success in suing the US government using the “writ of Mandamus” for cases where citizenship applications had been left pending for an unreasonable amount of time. This particular lawsuit can be filed to actually force (or mandate) a government agency such as USCIS to make a decision. I was excited to pass this info on to my client when I found out her case was still pending and recommended she make an appointment with a local law firm. I never knew the outcome of her case until I saw her naturalize.
We met after she naturalized and it was that I gained some insight into the emotional toll she had endured because of the lengthy citizenship process. I also found out she never sued the government because it was too costly. I asked her to write about this especially since she had waited a mind-boggling eight years to have a decision made on her case. She had a constitutional right to have a decision made on her application in a timely manner so I think her story, and stories similar to hers, should be told. Here’s what she wrote….
“I applied for my citizenship in August, 2007 and was very excited when I was scheduled for my interview in February, 2008. My interview and the officer told me that I would receive a request for more information or an invitation to the oath ceremony in the mail. I got impatient and frustrated when I did not hear back from the immigration office after 120 days and called customer service which could not give me any further information besides letting me know that they would put a note in my record for an officer to get back to me within two weeks. I approached a lawyer and paid $500 for a first session and realized he wanted more in fees to pursue this. I decided to do the research and follow up on my case. I visited USCIS website and saw that there was a back log of cases and background checks were delayed.
A year later I set up an Info-pass only to hear the same answer. Months turned to years, frustration replaced hope and I decided not to think about it (easier said than done); at the end of each day my thoughts would wander back. My family, work and life went on but this little thought nagged at the back of my mind.
Four years later, I heard Catholic Charities was offering free consultations on immigration cases. That’s where I met Sue Chaffee and she heard me out and told me that I was not alone and that she had seen this happen with others. She offered to follow up on my case and came up with the same answer; my case was probably deep down in the black hole of background checks! Although this answer was disappointing, it brought back my hope until a couple years later when Sue attended a legal immigration conference and discussed my case. When she got back, she advised me to hire a lawyer and sue the government. This was going to be expensive though and at that point I had two kids in college so I decided not to pursue this option.
It was over for me! Now my thoughts wandered off to, will they renew my green card? Do I have a future in this country? Should I start preparing to go back to the place I once called home? How do I prepare my kids for this? The list kept on and on and the stress creeped in. The only thing that works for me in times like this is prayer. My focus moved to planning for our family in all aspects, although in my heart I knew there was really was no option I belonged here, this is my home.
This past January, I tried emailing again and actually received a letter with an appointment date! This was fantastic!! I was interviewed for two hours and my entire immigration file was reviewed. There is always this fear that I may not remember the exact details, which at certain times I just could not. The officer said to me that he was not convinced and would need more time or information. He also mentioned that I should be glad that I still had a green card which gave me access to live and work in this country. I finally said to him what I wanted to all this time. I completely understood that he was doing his job and if he was not convinced he should not give me the citizenship. I dreaded the statement he made as I was leaving that I would probably have to come in one more time. In my mind I had decided I was never going back.
In exactly sixty days I got an invitation to my oath ceremony in the mail. It was hard to believe! I was skeptical and went to the oath ceremony fully prepared to be questioned again. I was skeptical and went fully prepared to be questioned and my application denied. It was a beautiful ceremony which I would have loved to share with my near and dear ones, but didn’t. But alas, I finally naturalized and the only emotion I felt was relief! The long waiting game had consumed my enthusiasm, excitement and joy. I love my life in the US, I learned a lot from my people around me and found myself and strength for which I will always be loyal and grateful to this country. For me, the lyrics of the star spangled banner sum it up: The land of the free and the home of the brave, In God is Our Trust.”
The perks that come with becoming a US citizen are coveted by many. Getting a US passport often tops the list, as well as being able to vote in US elections; not to mention no longer having the threat of deportation. But there are still an estimated 40% of people who might qualify for citizenship who do not choose to naturalize.
Whenever I meet with legal permanent residents (LPRs) who might be part of that 40% I usually ask them if they want to apply since we offer free citizenship services. For those who say no, the reasons are typical; “I need to learn more English,” or “I just renewed my green card” or more often, “I can’t afford the application fee.” But every now and then, someone responds, “I’m just not interested in being a US citizen.” Knowing how many undocumented immigrants would love the chance to be a US citizen, I’m always taken back by this indifference and wonder, “Why not?”
The majority of the clients we provide citizenship services to are pretty eager to go through the process. It intrigues me why people fall on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to naturalization. On the one end are people like Yang Chu who I wrote about in this blog who was excited to take the oath of allegiance. On the other end is someone like my friend, Trena, who has been a LPR for 20 years but is happy with her non-US citizen status. Hoping to gain some insight into LPRs like Trena – especially those who have been here long-term – I posed the ‘Why not?’ question to her. She answered, “It’s emotional” – an answer that certainly doesn’t qualify as indifference.
To begin shedding light on this emotional barrier, Trena started with….”The thing is, I’m a Brit, not an American. I’m a Brit who has happened to live in the US for 20 years. I have had that privilege. When you are a Brit the first thing an American hears is the accent so I almost feel like a fraud if I say I want to try to be American.” (As a side note, I had to have her repeat the word “fraud” 4 times and then spell it because of her accent). “I am a Brit in every way – I prefer soccer to baseball, the flavor of black currants more than grape and Cadbury’s over Hershey’s.”
Okay, that revealed some national identity barriers, but it didn’t address the emotional ones. But then she explained, “I feel it would be betraying my parents if I became American. I would somehow be rejecting them. If I became American I would be different than them. It has nothing to do with indifference.” That thought process captures how intertwined and complex national identity and emotional barriers can be and it certainly gives credence to her statement of “it’s emotional.” Those emotions she describes almost translates into her feeling as much allegiance (or even more) to her parents than she does for any flag. The national identity they bestowed to her and her loyalty to them explains the emotional barrier she has to naturalization. She also wants a part of that national identity to be passed on to her US born children. “I have always wanted to make sure that my kids know England and feel comfortable there too. Maybe that is also part of why I feel so torn about becoming a citizen.”
The reasons Trena had for emigrating also seem to play a part in her reluctance to apply for citizenship; it was never her intention to come to the US. She had married her US citizen spouse overseas but then agreed to come to the US when he found employment here. “There are people who make a more deliberate plan to come to the US. It wasn’t our plan; we only did it to work.” Since she has spent a lot of her adult life teaching international students and living in different parts of the world, she said she has a sense of belonging wherever she lives. “I don’t have to change my nationality to feel like that.”
Trena doesn’t give naturalizing a whole lot of thought but said she does feel the pull now and then to pursue it whenever the elections come around. “I want to vote. For many years I was detached from the social issues in this country, especially in the 90’s; issues like gun control and abortion were things I didn’t really relate to like an American does. But now I’ve changed. I want to vote in local elections – I especially missed not being able to vote for the school board this past year or for the sitting judge. I’m part of the community I live in and I really want to vote.”
Over the years, I have asked Trena to take the leap and become one of my citizenship clients at least a dozen times. I even asked her again during this interview. While she always good-naturedly turns me down, she did somewhat leave the door open. Referring to herself and a small group of British friends who also haven’t naturalized, she left me with, “We all know we’re going to do it.”
One of the services that we offer our clients is help in filing the Application for Naturalization which is a form called the N-400. As part of the Office for New Americans grant, we are currently providing free assistance for eligible clients in completing and submitting the N-400. Since 2010, we have helped over 300 immigrants become U.S. citizens – we hope to add another 100 to that total by the end of 2014.
On this post I will go over some of the things you should know if you are thinking of becoming a U.S. Citizen.
What is Naturalization?
Naturalization is the process by which U.S. citizenship is granted to a foreign citizen or national after he or she fulfills the requirements established by Congress in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).
Who can apply for Naturalization?
To become a U.S. Citizen you have to be a Legal Permanent Resident (Green Card Holder) of the United States. If you are a LPR and you are married to a U.S. Citizen, and have been living in the U.S. continuously, you can apply for citizenship after three years; if you are not married to a U.S. citizen, the wait is five years.
Do I need to have anything on hand to complete the application?
Yes, you will need a few things.
- Your green card (A copy needs to be included in the application).
- Your SSN
- Two passport photos
- Employment/education history for the last five years
- Places of residence for the last five years
- List of all travel outside the U.S. for any trip over 24 hours since you have been a permanent resident.
- Certified copies of dispositions for any convictions (for anyone with an arrest record, we will need to pre-screen you for eligibility)
- If you are married and/or have children you will also need to provide some information on them.
Other than filling out the application what else do I need to do?
There is a $68O filing fee. (This is paid by check or money order to the Department of Homeland Security.)
What if I cannot afford to pay the filing fee?
There is a fee waiver (Form I-912) available for families or individuals whose incomes meet the HHS Poverty Guidelines (Provided that you have the proper income verification documents).
Catholic Charities can prepare and file the fee waiver form your N-400 application.
Once I file the application is there anything else I need to do?
Yes, you will have to go to a Biometrics appointment where you will have your fingerprints taken for a background check, and you will have to pass a Naturalization Test during your Naturalization Interview. Once you have passed those two steps you will be scheduled for a Naturalization Ceremony where you will take the Oath of Alligeance, the final step in the process.
How long does all that take?
Usually the process takes from 3-5 months from when the N-400 is mailed out to the time when you take the Oath of Allegiance.
How do I study for the Naturalization Test?
Catholic Charities has the materials you will need to prepare for the test. There are also other local resources we can point you to where you can get help with the preparation.
Can my child become a U.S. Citizen when I do?
If you child is under 18 he or she will become a U.S. Citizen when you are Naturalized. Catholic Charities can then file a N-600, Application for Certificate of Citizenship, for your child.
If you are ready to take that step call our office at (607) 272-5062 for an appointment.
This information is a VERY basic overview of what you need to know if you are thinking of becoming a U.S. Citizen.
Thanks for reading!
Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of attending a naturalization ceremony in Cortland where several of our clients were sworn in as US citizens. These brave souls not only had to face some pretty harsh weather in order to get to Buffalo to start the citizenship interview process, but then they also had to pass an exam that tested their ability to memorize 100 questions about US civics before they could drive back home. One of those clients, Wei Wei, was interviewed during Buffalo’s worst snowstorms of the year. The forecasters were announcing up to 3 feet of lake effect snow and even though the thruway was about to close, she and her husband somehow managed to go there and back so she could complete the interview process. She was successful and I sat next to her as she took the Oath of Allegiance at Cortland’s naturalization ceremony.
Catholic Charities has been providing free citizenship services since 2010 in Ithaca. During that time I have gone to over 20 naturalization ceremonies held in Ithaca, Cortland, and Syracuse. Even though the ceremonies are very similar, they are also unique. For the most part, all of them have included either a local youth choral ensemble or string orchestra that performs American the Beautiful. A flag that has flown over the US capital is randomly given out to one new citizen. Buffalo’s Homeland Security officer, Jack Phetteplace, writes down the phonetic spelling of the immigrant’s name on a post-it so he doesn’t mispronounce it during the ceremony. A local florist is acknowledged for donating a rose or carnation for each new citizen. And family members are holding up cell phone cameras documenting the event from beginning to end.
The unique part is usually what the immigrant brings to the table. It is often the path they took to become citizens that is distinct and very individualized and for our clients who naturalized in Cortland, this was certainly true. For example, one client’s path started when she came to the US on a fiancé visa, another’s immigrant visa was approved that had been filed by her son, and yet another received her green card through her US citizen spouse. One client’s application for refugee status was approved by the UN Higher Committee of Refugees and he adjusted his status to green card holder one year after resettling in the US, and another’s employer filed a petition for her to get a green card because she was an exceptionally skilled worker. While their paths varied, they were all now naturalized as US citizens.
As immigration reform once again appears in the headlines, it is important to pause and think how much our community benefits when all of us are fully engaged as citizens. We need to recognize that the path to citizenship is something much more personal than a debate in immigration reform. It has a starting point and an ending that can be very similar or unique. And sometimes, this path can also involve braving one of Buffalo’s worst winter snowstorms of the year.