The realities of achieving American citizenship

immigration and refugee big idea

By Koula Glaros-King, staff attorney


The naturalization process is the hallmark of a nation built by immigrants and the expected goal of every U.S. non-citizen resident of our country. This milestone is fraught with every emotion from fear and uncertainty to joy and pride. In the words of former US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, “The only title in our democracy superior to that of President [is] the title of citizen.” 


In 2021, the most recent year of published statistics, more than 800,000 people naturalized to become United States citizens. Most were from Mexico, El Salvador, Canada, Dominican Republic, and the United Kingdom. In honor of Immigrant Heritage Month, this June is an opportunity for us to  celebrate the rich contributions immigrants have made to our nation. What is the process really like? What are some common pitfalls? What rights and responsibilities come with citizenship? And we ask, can YOU pass the mandatory naturalization civics test? Some test questions are trickier than you might think!


There are two ways people become U.S. citizens. The first is by birth - either within the United States or any of its territories, or under certain conditions outside the U.S. to a U.S. citizen parent. The other is by naturalization after having met all legal requirements, first and foremost is having been a U.S. Lawful Permanent Resident with a “green card,” for a specific period of several years. Most non-U.S. citizens had obtained their special “green card” status after extensive vetting based on limited grounds - as an immigrated immediate family member or valued employee, as a protected refugee or victim of other trauma or abuse, or as a U.S. military service member. 


This naturalization eligibility worksheet or tool helps prospective citizens determine whether they are ready for this journey. The eligibility tool reviews various elements, including citizenship of an applicant’s parents or spouse, their age, period of lawful permanent residence, time outside the U.S., and more.  There are multiple steps and considerations that happen before the final ceremony of the Oath of Allegiance. There is completing the actual application - and paying steep filing fees, waiting through processing backlogs, and completing a series of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service appointments that include biometrics (fingerprinting) and an interview with an officer that tests English language and civics knowledge.


There are many hurdles that can present themselves to would-be citizens, especially those with economic challenges. The current fee to apply for citizenship is $725, and this presents a barrier that delays or even prevents many from applying. One study showed naturalization application rates jumping by over 40% when immigrants received financial assistance vouchers. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service now also accepts requests to completely waive or reduce these filing fees for indigent and low-income applicants.  


Other common barriers include limited English proficiency or illiteracy, lengthy absences from the United States, a lack of understanding of the complicated requirements, intimidation or fear of the system, and certain criminal histories. 


The English testing determines each applicant’s ability to speak and understand basic English during their naturalization interview, as well as to read and write short sentences using words from the published naturalization vocabulary lists. This is particularly scary for those who have never had access to formal education. The process does give special consideration to applicants with serious medical impairments who cannot learn or speak for themselves, so applicants with disabilities are not barred from naturalization.


And the process of naturalization conducts one last thorough background check of each applicant for any security issues or illegal activities.  Immigration law has a much stricter interpretation regarding certain things that our society in general does not typically worry about.  For instance, more than one DUI, tax debt, child support arrearage, illegal gambling, pot use-even in states where it is legal, not only disqualify a person for naturalization, it also may cause them loss of their legal residency and ultimate removal from the United States.  Filing for naturalization can, therefore, be a dangerous and catastrophic triggering event for certain applicants.


Among applicants who successfully navigate the process, over 90% pass the naturalization test. Their new citizenship brings cherished rights and responsibilities. New rights specifically for citizens include the right to vote and to run for an elected office; to apply for all federal employment positions; to travel with a United States passport, and to immigrate immediate family members (spouse, parents, children). New responsibilities include participation in our democratic process at the national, state and local levels; staying informed on issues impacting our communities; and jury duty.  


Thinking about the difficult journeys our new citizens take to achieve this revered status helps us all appreciate the beautiful parts of being American.  The sincere and dedicated patriotism of these “Americans by Choice” is found throughout the history of our country in some of the greatest figures who honorably served the United States in every sphere of activity.


How many of us could make it through the civics test every prospective citizen must pass? Applicants must answer six of ten questions correctly. These questions come from a list of one hundred questions on U.S. government, history and civics that is published and regularly updated by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, with the answers to many hotly debated among American scholars and political figures. 


Try to answer these ten civics questions and see how you do.  It may give you a renewed appreciation for the work our newest Americans put in (and maybe even motivate you to pull out your old textbooks)!


This article is part of Legal Aid’s “Big Ideas” series. 

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