There are two ways to be a US citizen from birth. One — known as birthright citizenship — is to be born on US soil, including Puerto Rico, the Republic of Panama, the Virgin Islands, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands. The other is to be born to at least one parent with US citizenship. In 2019, citizens born into the status accounted for an estimated 86% of the population — or 283.3 million people.
Another estimated 23.2 million people were naturalized citizens, qualified applicants who obtained US citizenship later in life. About 761,901 immigrants naturalized in the 2018 fiscal year, according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Here’s how naturalization works.
People without US citizenship or nationality must first obtain status as a lawful permanent resident, known as a green card. They can proceed with the naturalization process after five years of living in the US with their green card, or three years in addition to being married to a US citizen. Once they naturalize, their children (under 18) can naturalize as well, without meeting residency requirements.
American Samoans are also eligible. Unlike those born in other US territories, American Samoans do not receive birthright citizenship. Instead, they are non-citizen US nationals, which is similar to permanent resident status. They can become citizens once they meet the same requirements for naturalization as those with green cards, with time lived in American Samoa counting towards US residency requirements.
Yes, with the qualification that they cannot run for president. According to the Constitution, only “natural born” citizens, not those who naturalized later in life, are eligible to hold that office.
Naturalization grants immigrants all the other rights and protections of citizenship. Green card holders must renew their documentation at least every 10 years, and they can lose their status at the determination of an immigration judge or as the result of an extended period spent abroad. People can lose their citizenship, but the reasons are fewer and less common.
Lawful permanent residents also cannot vote, but most citizens can. One exception is that US citizens cannot vote for president in the general election while living in one of the territories. Certain states also restrict voting rights for citizens because of felony convictions or lack of mental capacity.
The first step is to file an application with US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), along with supporting documents and evidence. Applicants must pay a fee of $640 upon submission, and those under 75 are responsible for an additional $85 fee to cover biometric processing, which records signatures, photos, and fingerprints.
Currently, there is a backlog, which can mean a wait of around nine months before an application is reviewed. USCIS reports that there were 731,833 pending applications at the end of 2018 and that the sum of approvals, denials, and withdrawals from January through September 2019 was 734,330 — suggesting that it was not until the end of that month that the agency began to process applications submitted in 2019.
Once notified that their written application has met requirements, an applicant undergoes a naturalization interview that includes questions on their background and application, as well as an English and civics test. USCIS may extend the application without granting approval if it would like to request more information or if the applicant fails their examination. It can also deny an applicant.
Those who pass their interview can go on to receive citizenship — as soon as the same day — through an oath ceremony, where they turn in their green card, pledge allegiance to the US, and obtain a certificate of naturalization.
Between January and March 2020, USCIS reported that 217,593 cases were resolved — 87% as a result of approvals and 13% as a result of denials or withdrawals. This is below the annual approval rate over the past six years, which peaked at 91% in 2014 and fell to 89% in 2019.
USCIS released a report in 2016 on naturalization trends among lawful permanent residents in the US. Higher percentages of recent green card recipients are now naturalizing within 10 years, up from 31% for those who got their green cards in 1973 to 54% for those who got them in 2004.
Among green card recipients from 2004, 76% of those born in India naturalized within 10 years — the highest naturalization rate of any major national cohort, followed by those born in Iran (75%), Pakistan (74%), and Vietnam (71%). Those least likely to naturalize within 10 years included Mexican-born immigrants (29%) and Canadian-born immigrants (34%).
With 10-year naturalization rates of 71% and 70%, respectively, those from the 2004 green card cohort who received their lawful permanent resident status through refugee or asylee status or through employer sponsorship were the most likely to go on to become citizens. Immediate relatives of US citizens naturalized at a rate of 50%, while non-immediate relatives naturalized at a rate of 44%.
Another 2016 USCIS report looks at the demographics of the 4.2 million citizens who naturalized between 2009 and 2014. About 28% of the new citizens were 50 or older, while 22% were under 30. The proportion of women was 10 percentage points higher than that of men, which could be related to the fact that more women than men obtain green card status each year and so are eligible for naturalization.
In this same period, the median household income at the time of naturalization for those over 25 was about the same as the average for the general US population in 2014, at $55,000. While nearly 20% of those who naturalized lacked a high school diploma or equivalent, compared to 13% among the general population in 2014, over 35% had a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 30% in the general population.
More recent data from DHS indicates that, of the 761,901 people who naturalized in the 2018 fiscal year, 17% were born in Mexico, 7% in India, 5% in China, 5% in the Philippines, 4% in Cuba, and 3% in the Dominican Republic.
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