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Why Bother Becoming a Citizen? Or, What’s in it for Me? (Part 1 of 2)

Oct. 14, 2020

Predictably in a Presidential election year, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”) is being flooded with applications by Lawful Permanent Residents (“LPRs” – commonly known as “Green Card” holders) to naturalize so they can vote. Voting is a precious privilege of citizenship – although one all too many citizens don’t even bother to exercise. It is one of the best reasons to become a citizen, but hardly the only one.

As an Immigration lawyer, I’m frequently asked by clients why they should bother becoming a citizen. We know the obvious disadvantages:

  • It costs money ($680 filing fee right now, and soon to rise again)

  • It takes time (although these days, usually only a few months)

  • There is some minimal studying of U.S. history and government involved, which frightens some people

  • There is some minimal knowledge of written and spoken English required

  • Some nations don’t recognize dual citizenship, and if a national of one of those countries naturalizes, he or she might lose the other citizenship

  • Maybe worst of all for many of us, citizens are the only ones eligible for jury duty. And nobody really likes jury duty, unless there’s a tell-all book to be written. Judges always tell jurors that jury duty is one of the great privileges of citizenship, but THEY get paid if they have to report for it. Most of us don’t.

As an LPR, you are allowed to live and work in the U.S. And you are allowed to travel abroad and return using just the Green Card (not even a passport, which U.S. Citizens are required to use!).

So, why should you become a citizen? Here are five reasons, in no particular order:

No Renewal Required

Green Cards have to be renewed every so often (usually, every 10 years). The cumulative cost of doing that, and the inconvenience, ultimately outstrips the cost of acquiring citizenship.

And renewal isn’t automatic. If you have committed certain crimes in the interim, USCIS can actually institute removal proceedings to strip you of the Green Card and remove you from the United States. If you have stayed outside the U.S. for too long, or have, in the Service's opinion, not acted like a Permanent Resident, the Service can seek to take away your Green Card under a theory of "abandonment."

If you don’t renew your Green Card, you’re still legally an LPR. However, an expired Green Card may not be used as evidence of eligibility to work or to reenter the U.S. after travel abroad.

Citizenship doesn’t have to be renewed. It CAN be taken away if you lied to get it and the government finds out about it, or if you do one of the few “intentional” acts that the law (Section 349 of the Immigration and Nationality Act) says may result in loss of nationality, such as treason, serving in a foreign government, serving in a foreign army during times of hostility between that country and the U.S. And being a citizen is no guarantee of getting your passport renewed if you are on probation for certain crimes, owe more than $1500 in child support payments, are wanted on an arrest warrant, are currently summoned to appear in court, are currently in jail, or have serious felony issues. But in general, unlike a Green Card, citizenship is forever, you don’t lose it even if you commit a crime (see below) or stay outside the U.S. for a long time, and you can’t lose it involuntarily.

No Need to Carry Around Proof of Status

Although very few people know this, there is actually a law that makes failure to carry your Green Card with you at all times a misdemeanor crime. Section 264(e) of the Immigration and Nationality requires all LPRs to have official evidence of LPR status “at all times.” Failure to do so carries the possibility of a fine of up to $100, and jail for up to 30 days. This scenario is not an everyday occurrence, but it can and does happen. See this account of one woman detained for 5 hours by the Border Patrol for just this reason.

A U.S. Citizen, by contrast, has no legal obligation to carry identifying documentation proving citizen status, except when entering and exiting the U.S., and seeking certain benefits that require proof of citizenship.

No Worries About Long Trips Abroad

Many Green Card holders have business interests, family responsibilities, or other matters abroad that require them to spend long periods of time outside the U.S. This is contrary to the principle of being a “permanent resident,” who is expected to spend most of his or her time in the U.S. There is always a risk of being found to have “abandoned” permanent residence if a Green Card holder stays out too long on any one trip, or has frequent shorter absences.

In fact, one of the most frequent questions most Immigration attorneys get from their Permanent Resident clients is, “How long can I stay outside the U.S. before I have problems?”, followed closely by “How frequently do I have to come back to the U.S. so as not to jeopardize my status?” I can’t speak for other attorneys, but my clients are inevitably dismayed when I tell them that there is no magic formula and that any perceived pattern of not acting like a Permanent Resident can trigger a stern warning, if not worse.

The question simply does not arise for a Citizen. A U.S. Citizen can live outside the U.S. all the time if he or she so desires. In general, a U.S. Citizen can even collect U.S. Social Security while living abroad in most countries; Social Security payments to any LPR living abroad stop after 6 months abroad and don’t restart until the LPR has been back in the U.S. for at least a month. Of course, citizenship does not relieve a person of the obligation of paying income taxes on all income, worldwide, since the U.S., alone among developed countries, imposes that requirement on all tax “residents,” be they citizens, Green Card holders, or even in many cases long-term nonimmigrants. But a citizen, unlike a Green Card holder, can stay out indefinitely without worrying about endangering or losing status.

No Deportation of U.S. Citizens

The government can and does deport (“remove”) Green Card holders, for a whole host of reasons, not all of which are intuitively obvious. There’s a whole statute, with lots and lots of subsections, devoted to just that. (Section 237 of the Immigration and Nationality Act). And not just a few Green Card holders, but thousands every year – many of whom may have committed “youthful indiscretions” and have turned their lives around, and may really know no other country of residence than the U.S. And laws can change, redefining without warning what makes a person removable. Many people, correctly or not, are worried that grounds for removal of "aliens" from certain countries may be expanded, and enforced vigorously, depending on the outcome of this year’s Presidential election.

Citizens convicted of even the most heinous of crimes can be punished, but not removed. Obviously, nobody should be committing crimes, and a person should never think of citizenship as a “license” to commit crimes. But it’s reassuring to know that if a citizen, unlike a Green Card holder, slips up and commits a crime, it’s not going to mean a one-way ticket to a country where, in all likelihood, he or she is a stranger and at a huge disadvantage – AFTER serving his or her time.

There Are More Possibilities for Citizens to Bring Over Family Members.

Many people want to reunite their families: parents, children, siblings. There are a lot more opportunities for a U.S. Citizen to do so.

There are precisely three categories of relatives whom an LPR may sponsor: (1) spouse of an LPR; (2) child (defined by law as under age 21 and unmarried) of an LPR; (3) UNmarried son or daughter (defined as being age 21 or older) of an LPR. No parents, no MARRIED children, and no siblings. If you want to sponsor a parent, a married son or daughter, or a sibling, you have to be a citizen.

In addition, although the prospects for any kind of Comprehensive Immigration Reform appear dim at present, you should know that the last time it was debated seriously in Congress, there was a sentiment that Immigrant Visa categories for siblings, and perhaps even for married children, of U.S. Citizens, should be discontinued. The clock is ticking on what anti-immigration types derisively refer to as “chain” immigration. If there’s a chance that you might want to apply for a sibling or married child, it makes sense to do that sooner rather than later – and the first step is to become a citizen.

Don’t forget that there is no visa backlog for Immigrant Visas or Green Cards for spouses and children of U.S. Citizens, referred to as “Immediate Relatives.” There IS a significant backlog for so-called Family-based “2A” Second Preference spouses and children of LPRs, and an even more significant backlog for “2B” unmarried sons and daughters of LPRs. (There are special cases where an unmarried son or daughter may be better off if the parent doesn't naturalize; but even in most of those cases, the son or daughter can still "elect" to be treated as the son or daughter of an LPR — as long as he or she doesn't marry!)

Finally, Immediate Relatives enjoy certain benefits in adjusting to Green Card that so-called “preference” immigrants don’t: (1) an Immediate Relative (spouse or child of a U.S. Citizen, or parent of an adult U.S. Citizen) can adjust status to LPR inside the U.S., assuming lawful entry, even if he or she is no longer “in status” or has worked without authorization; (2) Immediate Relatives who have entered the U.S. with the so-called “Visa Waiver” are the only Visa Waiver entrants (other than those claiming Asylum) allowed to adjust status inside the U.S.; (3) as noted, an Immigrant Visa is “immediately available" – no “queue”; and (4) for purposes of preserving a child’s age under the Child Status Protection Act, a filing by a citizen for his or her child under age 21 preserves the child’s age as under 21 for the duration of the process, even if the child subsequently turns 21 before completing the process.

Ability to Run for Public Office

Not everybody wants to run for or hold elected office. But if you do, you have to be a U.S. Citizen. There are currently 17 foreign-born members of Congress – most of whom are naturalized U.S. Citizens – and numerous naturalized U.S. Citizens holding state, county, and local offices.