Monday, December 14, 2009

Immigration 101: Citizenship by Birth and Naturalization

I have discussed in this series how people can visit the U.S., how a U.S. national or business can bring someone into the country, how people can come here to flee persecution or just because they're lucky, and how these people become permanent residents. Now, I will discuss how these permanent residents can become citizens. But first, I will discuss why most U.S. citizens are citizens by birth.

Citizenship by Birth

Most U.S. citizens can claim this status by virtue of jus soli, or the fact they were born in the United States. Few countries still follow this principle of law--India abolished it little more than five years ago due to illegal immigrant births inside its borders--but it is generally viewed as enshrined in our 14th Amendment. Some people would like to see us abolish this principle as well, because of illegal immigrants' children. I know I said I wouldn't discuss my opinions in this series, but the rule does serve an important function and reinforce an American value. The function is simplicity: It makes it much easier to prove you're a citizen, instead of having to prove you are a citizen by proving your parents were citizens (and, in turn, you would have to prove their parents were citizens). The value is that America is a place, not a people, i.e., we are not France, filled with French people, or some other place, but instead a mix of people.

The other way to be a citizen by birth is by the principle of jus sanguinis, or citizenship by blood. The way this happens has changed over the years, but in general you are a citizen of the United States if either of your parents was a citizen when you were born. Citizenship through jus soli is permanent, but citizenship through jus sanguinis can be lost if you don't spend some time within the United States by your 21st birthday (there are very specific requirements). This rule prevents us from having a lot of citizens floating out there without any ties to the country, a further extension of the value that America is a place, not a people.

Citizenship by Choice

As a general rule, a person can become a citizen of the U.S. (be "naturalized") if they have been a legal permanent resident for at least five years, have been inside the United States for that time, can speak, read, and write English, can pass a civics and U.S. history test, and have good moral character. They can do this by filing Form N-400. If they are approved, they must swear allegiance to the United States.

Some exceptions do apply. If you are over a certain age and have been a permanent resident long enough (over 50 and here 20 years or over 55 and here 15 years), you can get around the English-language requirement. Spouses of U.S. citizens need only be a permanent resident for 3 years, and military personnel get even looser requirements, especially if they've seen combat (combat allows someone to jump straight from being an illegal immigrant to being a citizen).


I hope this series has helped you to understand the current immigration system, and that it will contribute to an informed debate on the topic.

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