Sitting in a coffee shop in Cokato, I overhear a table of ten talking about citizenship, and Trump’s declaration that he is going to abolish birthright citizenship.
“There ought to be some kind of waiting period for citizenship,” one man says. There is.
Another asks: “Do other countries allow anybody born there to be a citizen?” Yes—more than 30 other countries, and that has been the law here since the United States was founded.
“If somebody just stays here for five or ten years, then they get the right to stay,” says another. No. Absolutely not.
I know the men sitting around this table are better-informed than most people, because I’ve overheard other snippets of conversation on other Wednesday mornings. If they don’t know the laws about citizenship, confusion is probably widespread. So, here’s a basic fact sheet about citizenship. Feel free to share it with your friends or with random confused strangers on social media.
How do people become citizens of the United States?
The first, oldest, and easiest way is to be born in the United States. That is sometimes called birthright citizenship. When this country was founded, that was the rule in England, and the founders just assumed it was the rule here, too. After the Civil War, with some states attempting to deny state citizenship to newly-freed slaves, the 14th Amendment made it explicit: everyone born in the United States is a citizen of the United States and of the state where they reside.
The second way to citizenship is to be born outside the country, but to at least one U.S. citizen parent. This is not a constitutional guarantee, but rather a part of U.S. immigration law, and therefore complicated. You can find the official explanation here.
A third way to become a citizen is through the legal process of naturalization. That requires an application to demonstrate that the person meets requirements set out in the immigration laws. Those requirements begin with legal permanent residence. That’s a specific legal status for immigrants, which is sometimes called “having a green card.”
Someone may be legally in the United States but not a permanent resident: for example, someone with a temporary student, tourist, or work visa.
Only legal permanent residents can apply for citizenship, and they can only apply after having lived here as a permanent resident for at least five years, or for at least three years as the legal permanent resident spouse of a U.S. citizen. Two other exceptions to the five-year rule apply to immigrants who have served in the U.S. military and to adopted children.
Besides having legal permanent residence and living in the United States with that status for the required amount of time, applicants for citizenship need to demonstrate good moral character, proficiency in reading, writing, and speaking English, and an understanding of U.S. history and government.
What does it cost?
The basic fee is $725, which includes the $640 citizenship application fees and the $85 background check cost. Besides that, applicants will need to pay for official copies of all important papers, such as birth certificates and marriage and/or divorce certificates, and for certified translations of those documents, if they are in a language other than English.
Many applicants need a lawyers help to complete the 20- page application form, which comes with 18 pages of instructions, and to assemble all the required documentation. Lawyer’s fees can add thousands of dollars to the cost of applying.
How long does it take?
At the end o f2017, the backlog of naturalization applications reached 730,000—an 87 percent increase over 2015. The time from application to interview and oath ceremony differs from place to place, but is now frequently as long as two years. That means that if someone files an application today, they might not be approved in time to vote in 2020.
Why Welcome Immigrants?
The desire of hundreds of thousands of people to become U.S. citizens refutes the arguments of those who say immigrants weaken our country. Threats to end birthright citizenship, to close our borders, to end asylum for those fleeing violence and persecution: these threats are un-American and a betrayal of our history and values.
As U.S. Representative Joe Kennedy III wrote recently:
“Since the beginning, immigration has been an affirmation of our success, not a threat to it. People risk everything to reach this land because they believe in our greatness — our fair laws, our good values, our promises and possibilities. We should not worry when the striving and suffering arrive on our shores; we should worry when they stop coming at all….
“We have spent generations battling those who would make America sharp and small and scared. We have risen, we have challenged, we have dragged ourselves toward a more perfect union.
“We have done that by seeing a little of ourselves, our history, and our experience in others’ eyes. By choosing compassion and mercy and grace — not just because they are right, but because they are smart. Because we are richer and stronger and freer when we aim for less suffering, less trauma, less poverty, less prejudice.”