Make It Official
A Guide To Becoming A U.S. Citizen
New citizens are sworn in at Queensborough Community College. Tribune photos by Ira Cohen
By Sarah Stanfield
If you are reading this article, you’ve already landed on the shores of this country, perhaps arriving for business, as a student or on a tourist visa. You may have been granted a stay here because a relative sponsored you. In any case, you decided that you like the place and you wish to stay here permanently, becoming a citizen of the United States.
The process is not easy, but it is simple. To start, you must obtain a Permanent Resident Card (also known as a Green Card), and then take a series of steps toward citizenship. Here’s how to undertake this life-transforming journey.
Green Cards And Applications
There are many ways to obtain a Permanent Resident Card. Generally, an employer or an immediate relative, such as a parent, spouse, sibling or child, must file a petition with the United States Citizenship & Immigration Services bureau for this card. You can also marry a U.S. citizen, which can make the citizenship process proceed significantly faster, though nobody should ever marry for the wrong reasons.
Once your petition for a Permanent Resident Card has been approved, you will be given an immigrant visa number, known as the “A-Number.” This is not a short process. It can take years before your petition is approved and you get your “A-Number.” But once it is approved, you can live in the U.S. indefinitely. However, you won’t have the same privileges as a citizen of the country. For example, you won’t be able to vote. You also will not be eligible for a U.S. passport, which not only allows you to travel to and from the U.S. easily, but also grants you government protection and assistance when you are abroad.
If you are over the age of 18, have your Green Card and decide to undergo the process of becoming a citizen (also called naturalization), the first thing you have to do is wait. In order to begin the naturalization process you must have lived in the U.S. continuously for five years or longer. If you are married to a U.S. citizen, you must have lived in the U.S. continuously for three years or longer. You also must have resided for the last three months in the state in which you seek application for citizenship before you apply.
A Lot To Learn
Before you even apply for naturalization, you’ll need to bone up on your English skills and knowledge of U.S. history and government. In order to be considered for citizenship, you must be able to read, write and speak basic English, as well as know the fundamentals of U.S. history and the structure and principles of the U.S. government. Type in “U.S. Citizenship Test” at www.google.com and you will find several Web sites that can help you learn the basics of U.S. history and government.
You also must be willing to take an oath pledging allegiance to the U.S. The USCIS provides a free guide to the naturalization process, which includes a worksheet that will help you determine your eligibility for citizenship at http://uscis.gov/graphics/services/natz/English.pdf. You can get versions in some other languages by typing in the name of the language instead of English in the URL.
Once you think you are eligible for citizenship, fill out the Application for Naturalization (Form N-400) from the USCIS. You can obtain the form by calling the USCIS Forms Line at (800) 870-3676 or downloading it from http://uscis.gov. In addition to filling out the form completely and accurately, you must include a photocopy of both sides of your Permanent Resident Card and two identical color photographs with your name and “A-Number” written in pencil on the back of each. For a full listing of the documents you need to send with the application, see the “Document Checklist” section of the guide mentioned above. Not following any of its instructions exactly will delay the entire process. Send an English translation with any document that is not in English. The translation must include a statement from the translator that he or she is competent to translate and that the translation is correct.
Send the completed form to your local USCIS Service Center. For people living in Queens, send the form to: Vermont Service Center, 75 Lower Weldon Street, St. Albans, VT, 05479-0001. Make a copy of the application and send it, not the original. The fee for filing the application is $320, plus an extra $70 for fingerprinting, the next step in the process. Pay the fee with a check or money order made out to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The oath is administered to hundreds at Queens College. Tribune photos by Ira Cohen
After you have sent in the application, the USCIS will send you a letter informing you when and where to have your fingerprints taken. Bring your notice letter from USCIS, your Permanent Resident Card, and another form of identification with your photograph on it. The USCIS will send your fingerprints to the FBI to do a criminal background check on you.
Once you have been fingerprinted and the USCIS has reviewed your files, it will send you an interview notice in the mail informing you of the date, time and place of your interview. If you cannot attend the interview at the day and time assigned, write the office where your interview is scheduled to take place as soon as possible and ask to have your interview rescheduled. The office will set a new date and the USCIS will send you the new interview notice. Try and not to reschedule your interview, as it will only delay your naturalization process.
When you go to your interview, bring your Permanent Resident card, your passport (even if it has expired), and any re-entry permits you have. During the interview, the USCIS officer will ask you about your background, evidence supporting your case, your place and length of residence, your moral character, your loyalty to the U.S. Constitution, and your willingness to take an oath of allegiance to the U.S.
As part of the interview, you will be tested on your ability to read, write and speak English. For example, you may be asked to read several simple questions out loud and write one or two simple sentences. Your speaking ability will be tested while you talk with your interviewer.
Also during the interview, you will be asked to verbally answer a series of civics questions or take a written multiple-choice test of about 20 questions. Examples of such questions might be, “Who is the current president of the United States?” or “For how many years do we elect a Senator?”
After the interview, you will receive a form called the N-652 that gives you information about the results of the interview. It will grant, continue, or deny your naturalization application. If your application is granted, you may be able to take the oath of allegiance on the same day as your interview. Otherwise, you will receive a notice telling you when and where your oath ceremony will be.
If you are told your case is to be “continued,” it usually means you failed the English and/or civics tests or did not give the USCIS all the required documents. You will be asked to come back for a second interview, usually within 60 to 90 days. If you fail the English and civics tests again, your application will be denied. If your case is continued because of the failure to bring all the appropriate documents to the initial interview, you will be sent a form called the N-14. It explains what information or documents you must provide to the USCIS and when and how you should return the information.
If your case has been denied, do not despair. Your denial letter will explain why that decision was made and will also tell you how to request a hearing with an USCIS officer to contest the denial and get the correct form for filing an appeal. If you are denied after the hearing, you may file a petition for a new review of your application in the U.S. District Court.
Taking The Oath
If you have been approved for naturalization, congratulations! You are almost through this long ordeal. Unless you are allowed to take the oath of allegiance on the day of your interview, the USCIS will send you a letter notifying you of the time and date of the ceremony. When you attend the ceremony, you will have to surrender your Permanent Resident Card. Don’t panic about this. You will no longer need the card because you will get your Certificate of Naturalization at the ceremony.
The next part of the ceremony is the Oath Of Allegiance, which officially makes you a citizen. An official will read each part of the oath slowly and ask you to repeat his or her words. Once you have taken the oath, you will receive your Certificate of Naturalization, which is proof that you are a U.S. citizen. It is strongly recommended that you apply for a U.S. passport after your naturalization ceremony. It serves as evidence of U.S. citizenship and is easier to carry than a Certificate of Naturalization. Also, if you lose your Certificate of Naturalization, it may take up to a year to replace it.
Helping You Along
There are many places in Queens that offer aid to those seeking to become United State citizens. Here is a sampling of some places to get assistance:
Centro Hispano Cuzcatlán: Situated in Jamaica, this center offers immigration consultation and legal advice to Spanish-speaking immigrants on a sliding-scale fee basis. You can contact them at (718) 298-5083.
Emerald Isle Immigration Center: Despite the name, this immigration service center in Woodside offers help to immigrants of all backgrounds for free. They can be contacted at (718) 478-5502.
Immigrant Advocacy Services: Located in Astoria, this organization offers consultation on immigration in Arabic, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and Urdu on a sliding-scale fee basis. They can be reached at (718) 956-8218.
The New York Immigration Hotline: This is full-service information resource for New York’s immigrant community, which offers sliding-scale fee services in Albanian, Arabic, French, Haitian Creole, Hindi, Italian, Korean, Mandarin, Macedonian, Polish, Punjabi, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Spanish, Turkish and Urdu. The hotline is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, at (800) 566-7636.
For more centers catering to the needs of immigrants in Queens, see www.queenslibrary.org/programs/nap/links/citizenship.asp.