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< Back to current issue of Immigration Daily < Back to current issue of Immigrant's Weekly

Criteria For Naturalization And Selected Problem Areas

by Cyrus D. Mehta

A. Introduction

In an era of heightened enforcement against noncitizens, naturalization offers a number of important benefits such as the right to vote and also immunity against deportation.

While naturalization appears to be a relatively simple process, it also has many pitfalls. The attorney must carefully evaluate the client's eligibility for naturalization. Issues such as long trips outside the US or not registering for Selective Service, could lead to a denial of the application. Even if the client is eligible, one must watch for prior criminal convictions that could not only lead to a denial of the naturalization application, but could place the person in removal proceedings with no recourse for relief.

The Application for Naturalization (Form N-400) must be properly completed and mailed to the Service Center of the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (BCIS) having jurisdiction over the applicant's residence. As of 2002, there is a new and more extensive application Form N-400. Two photographs of the applicant and a copy of the applicant's alien resident card must accompany it. The BCIS will send notification to the applicant to proceed for fingerprinting in a few months. An interview is normally scheduled within one year after the application is filed in New York. At the interview, the applicant is tested on his or her basic understanding of English as well as basic knowledge of U.S. history and government. If all is successful, a swearing ceremony is scheduled where the applicant has to take an oath of allegiance to the US and citizenship is granted.

This outline will highlight the eligibility criteria for naturalization and also discuss selected problem areas.

B. Eligibility Criteria

1. The applicant must be a Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR). INA 318. If a person has honorably served in time of war or declared hostility, LPR status as a precondition is unnecessary. INA 329. Posthumous citizenship may also be granted through death while in active service. INA 329A.

2. The applicant must be 18 years old, INA 334(b), unless his or her age is waived due to military involvement under INA 329.

3. The applicant must be a resident continuously for 5 years immediately preceding the date of filing the application. INA 316(a). During these 5 years, the applicant must have been physically present in the US for periods totaling at least one half of that time. Id. Furthermore, the applicant should have resided continuously within the US from the date of the application up to the time of admission for citizenship. Id. Part 7 on Form N-400, concerning all dates of entry and exit from the US, must be carefully and accurately completed. At the interview, the BCIS may require to see previously filed tax returns, verification of trips on the passport and other proof if there is any doubt that the applicant has not met the requirement of "physical presence in the U.S."

4. If the applicant is married to a US citizen (USC), the residency requirement is reduced to 3 years if the spouse has been a USC for 3 years. INA 319(a). The parties must be living in marital union at the time of the interview. A divorce, legal separation or even an informal separation would break the marital union requirement. 8 C.F.R. 319.1(b)(2)(ii)(B). When the residency requirement is only three years, the applicant must have been physically present in the U.S. for periods totaling at least one-half of that time.

5. The applicant must have resided at least three months within the state in which the petition is filed. INA 316(a)(1), 319(A). Note that Part 4 of the application, concerning the applicant's current address, should be consistent with this requirement. The BCIS permits applications to be filed 4 years and 9 months after acquiring permanent residency, and 2 years and 9 months in the case of a spouse of a USC.

6. The applicant must not be absent from the U.S. for a continuous period of more than one year during the periods for which continuous residence is required. INA 316. 8 C.F.R. 316.5(c)(1)(ii). If there has been an absence of one or more years, it would break the continuity of residence and wipe the slate clean. If the applicant did not obtain a reentry permit to remain outside the US for more than one year, he or she would also be in danger of jeopardizing LPR status. If a person has broken the continuity of residence, he or she could only apply 4 years and 1 day following the date of his or her return to the U.S. to resume residency. If the statutory period is 3 years, then it is 2 years and 1 day following his or her return. 8 C.F.R. 316.5(c)(1)(ii). An absence of more than six months but less than one year establishes a presumption against compliance with the continuous residency requirement. However, this can be rebutted. INA 316(b), 8 C.F.R. 316.5(c)(1)(i). The regulations at 8 C.F.R. 316.5(c)(1)(i) provide examples, which would support a claim that residence had not been interrupted even if there has been a period of absence between six and twelve months:

i) Applicant did not terminate his or her employment in the United States;

ii) The applicant's immediate family remained in the United States;

iii) The applicant retained full access to his or her US abode; or

iv) The applicant did not obtain employment while abroad.

The regulation goes on to note that documentation "is not limited" to these specific categories of evidence.

7. There exist certain statutory exemptions based on the one year continuous absence as follows:

i) Military service abroad. INA 328.

ii) Certain employees working abroad who obtain approval to preserve their residency (by filing Form N-470), INA 316(b). To be eligible for the exemption, the applicant must demonstrate one year of physical presence after acquiring LPR status. The applicant must be working abroad for the U.S. government; a recognized U.S. institution of research; a U.S. firm or corporation engaged in whole or part in the development of foreign trade and commerce of the U.S. or a subsidiary in which a majority of the stock is owned by the U.S. entity; or a public international organization of which the U.S. is a member by treaty a statute (and employment must have commenced after the applicant's admission as an LPR).

iii) Spouses of USCs working abroad can obtain expedited citizenship under limited circumstances. INA 319(b).

8. The applicant must be a person of good moral character for the requisite five years. In the case of a spouse married to a USC, the period for demonstrating good moral character is three years. The applicant must maintain good moral character up to the time of admission to citizenship. INA 316(a)(3), 319(a)(1).

i) Statutory ineligibility grounds for good moral character are found at INA 101(f). These include habitual drunkards, those convicted of crimes under INA 212(a)(2)(A) and (B) as well as aliens who have been involved in illicit trafficking in controlled substances under 212(a)(2)(C) (except to a single offence of simple possession of 30 grams or less or marijuana). It also includes aliens involved in prostitution and commercialized vice under 212(a)(2)(D), alien smugglers under 212(a)(6)(E) and aliens previously removed under 212(a)(9)(A). Other statutory grounds include one whose income is derived principally from illegal gambling activities; one who has been convicted of two or more gambling offenses committed during such period; one who has given false testimony for the purpose of obtaining any benefits; one who during such period has been confined, as a result of conviction, to a penal institution for an aggregate period of one hundred and eighty days or more, regardless of whether the offense, or offenses, for which s/he has been confined were committed within or without such period; and one who at any time has been convicted of an aggravated felony as defined in INA 101(a)(43).

ii) The regulations at 8 CFR 316.10 provide that the naturalization applicant shall be found to lack good moral character if the applicant:

Has been convicted of murder at any time.

Has been convicted after November 29, 1990, of an aggravated felony, as defined in INA 101(a)(43).

During the statutory residence period:

- Committed one or more crimes involving moral turpitude, other than a purely political offense, for which the applicant was convicted, except as specified in INA 212(a)(2)(A)(ii)(II) (petty offense exception);

- Committed two or more offenses for which the applicant was convicted and the aggregate sentence actually imposed was five years or more, provided that, if the offense was committed outside the United States, it was not a purely political offense;

- Violated any law of the United States, any state, or any foreign country relating to a controlled substance, provided that the violation was not a single offense for simple possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana;

- Admits committing any criminal act described above for which there was never a formal charge, indictment, arrest, or conviction, whether committed in the United States or any other country;

- Is or was confined to a penal institution for an aggregate of 180 days pursuant to a conviction or convictions (provided that such confinement was not due to a conviction outside the United States for a purely political offense);

- Has given false testimony to obtain any benefit under the INA, where the testimony was made orally, under oath or affirmation, and with an intent to obtain an immigration benefit. This prohibition applies regardless of whether the information provided n the false testimony was material, in the sense that if given truthfully it would have rendered ineligible for benefits either the applicant or the person on whose behalf the applicant sought the benefits. 1

- Is or was involved in prostitution of a person or persons into the United States, as described in INA 212(a)(6)(E);

- Has practiced or is practicing polygamy;

- Committed two or more gambling offenses for which the applicant was convicted;

- Earns his or her income principally from illegal gambling activities; or was a habitual drunkard.

Unless the applicant establishes extenuating circumstances, he or she will be found to lack good moral character if, during the statutory period, the applicant:

- Willfully failed to or refused to support dependents;

- Had an extramarital affair which tended to destroy an existing marriage ; or2

- Committed any unlawful acts that adversely reflect upon the applicant's moral character, whether or not the actions led to a conviction or imprisonment. This is a catch all provision that allows an examiner to deny an application even if the alleged acts do not fall within the purview of the above provisions.

(iii) The attorney must also review the grounds of removability under INA 237 to determine whether the applicant risks exposure to removal in addition to risking denial of the application. Below are key provisions that an attorney must examine when examining the criminal record of the applicant:

  • 237(a)(2)(A)(i)(I) & (II) if an alien is convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude committed within five years after the date of admission and is convicted of a crime for which a sentence of one year or longer may be imposed is removable.

  • 237(a)(2)(A)(ii) - any alien who at any time after admission is convicted of two or more crimes involving moral turpitude, not arising out of a single scheme of criminal misconduct, regardless of whether confined therefore and regardless of whether the convictions were in a single trial, is deportable.

  • 237(a)(2)(A)(iii) any alien who is convicted of an aggravated felony at any time after admission is deportable.

  • 237(E) an alien who at any time after entry is convicted of a crime of domestic violence, stalking, or related crimes involving child abuse is deportable. Similarly, an alien who at any time after entry violates a protection order is also deportable.

  • 237(a)(2)(B) - an alien who has been convicted of any law or regulation relating to a controlled substance, other than a single offense involving possession for one's own use of 30 grams or less of marijuana, is deportable.

  • Also beware of inadmissibility even if a crime of moral turpitude is not deportable, an alien who was inadmissible at the time of entry under 237(a)(1)(A) is deportable. Thus, under 101(a)(13)(A), an alien who committed an offence identified in 212(a)(2) may be found deportable today if he or she was admitted into the United States without incident previously.

9. Every male US citizen or permanent resident (except those on nonimmigrant visas) must register for selective service between 16 and 26 years of age. Failure to comply with this selective service registration is a ground for denial based on a lack of good moral character if the person knowingly or willfully failed to register. According to an INS General Counsel Memo,3 failure to register raises concerns regarding good moral character, attachment to the principles of the Constitution, and being well disposed to the good order and happiness of the United States, as well as the requirement that the applicant must be willing to bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law. An individual between 18 and 26 years of age who has failed to register would be denied naturalization. Individuals between 26 and 31 years of age who failed to register risk denial based on lack of good moral character unless the failure to register was not knowing and willful. For individuals over 31, the failure to register would be outside the 5-year period for good moral character but BCIS would want to be satisfied that the applicant is currently a person of good moral character.

10. The applicant must be attached to the principles of the Constitution and well disposed to the good order and happiness of the US. INA 316(a)(3). The applicant must reveal all organizations s/he has ever been a member of in the past on Part 9 of N-400. 4

11. The applicant must be willing to "(A) bear arms on behalf of the US when required by law, or B) to perform noncombat service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by law, or C) to perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law." INA 337(a)(5)(A)-(C). A person may oppose to bear arms based on "religious training and belief." This term, according to INA 337(a)(C), means "an individual's belief in relation to a Supreme Being involving duties superior to those arising from any human relation, but does not include essentially political, sociological, or philosophical views or a merely personal moral code."

12. The applicant must not be a subversive (INA 313, 316(f)); member of the communist party (INA 313(a)), unless it was involuntary or otherwise excusable under INA 313(d)); convicted deserter (INA 314); an alien who has removal proceedings pending or an outstanding order of deportation, (INA 318); 5 or an alien who has applied for and received relief from the Selective Service System based on his alien age (INA 315(a)).

13. The applicant must demonstrate an elementary level of reading, writing and understanding of the English language. INA 312(a)(1). The applicant must also demonstrate a knowledge and understanding of the fundamentals of the history and government of the U.S. INA 312(a)(2). The English language requirement shall not apply to (1) persons who are over 50 and living in the U.S. for 20 years subsequent to LPR status; or (2) persons who are over 55 years of age and living in U.S. for 15 years subsequent to LPR status. INA 312(b)(2)(A) & (B). The BCIS will also give special consideration to persons over 65 with 20 years as an LPR with respect to their knowledge of history and government. INA 212(b)(3). Furthermore, the English language and history/government requirements are waived for persons who are unable to comply because they posses a physical or developmental disability or mental impairment. INA 312(a)(2). The oath requirement has recently been waived for people who cannot comprehend it because of a physical or developmental disability or a mental impairment. INA 337(a)(5).

C. Selected Problem Areas

1. Establishing continuity of residence: Naturalization examiners are scrutinizing extended trips outside the US more closely. With respect to absences of more than six months and less than one year, there appears to be an increasing tendency for the BCIS to deny such applications on ground that the applicant has failed to maintain continuous residence in the United States. It is important to bear in mind that the statute also addresses these absences individually, not collectively. That is to say, if an applicant has had several absences of more than six months and less than a year, he or she must still be given the opportunity to rebut a presumption of disruption of continuous residence, provided, of course that the total time spent in the United States complies with the INA's "physical presence" requirements. Such evidence includes, but is not limited to, the following: evidence that one's employment in the U.S. was not terminated (or evidence that applicant continued to receive benefits such as health coverage); evidence that the applicant continued to maintain a residence in the U.S.; evidence that family members remained in the United States while the applicant was outside the U.S.; or evidence that the applicant did not seek or obtain employment abroad. It is essential that applicants be able to establish that their intention was to maintain residence in the United States and substantiate this intention with as much documentary evidence as possible prior the interview, to prevent a denial of the application. As long as the BCIS continues to adhere to a rigid and mechanical interpretation of the statutory language, it will remain the applicant's burden to prepare a solid case. If an applicant filed a non-resident tax return, or fails to file federal/state returns because he/she considers himself or herself to be a nonresident alien, it raises a rebuttable presumption that the applicant has relinquished the privileges of permanent resident status in the US. 8 CFR 316.5(c)(2).

2. Permanent residence not lawfully obtained: If your client obtained permanent residence unlawfully, it can come to the attention of the BCIS during naturalization processing. For instance, an applicant could have immigrated under the family second preference categories while being married. The second preference categories are only applicable to the child (category 2A) or son or daughter (category 2B) of permanent residents who remain unmarried. There could also be situations where the applicant immigrated through an employment petition based on an approved labor certification. The applicant never reported to work for the sponsoring employer and cannot remember the employer's name or its address. 6 If the applicant obtained permanent residency through the legalization programs of the 1980s, make sure that he or she was eligible for them. Finally, one can also encounter situations where the applicant obtained residence through a fraudulent marriage.

3. Applicant migrated legally but subsequently abandoned permanent residence: Often times, one may encounter a client who has stayed outside the United States for over a year without a reentry permit. This person may have been mistakenly admitted into the US in the distant past after a trip in excess of a year. Since Form N-400 requires a listing of all dates of exit and entry into the US, time spent overseas for more than one year without a reentry permit would signal that the applicant had abandoned permanent residence and was inadmissible at the time of his or her last entry into the US.7

4. Applicant has conviction that subjects him or her to removal: BCIS interviewing officers are more focused on applicants' arrest records than any other aspect of the application. On the other hand, many individuals minimize the significance or even deny an arrest. Some arrests may not lead to a denial of the application or lead to removal, but the very failure to mention it on the application could have adverse consequences for the applicant. When a client presents an arrest record, the practitioner has to decide whether that arrest or conviction would merely jeopardize the citizenship application or also cause the applicant to be placed in removal proceedings. It is important to determine whether the arrest or conviction would undermine the applicant's good moral character as well as whether it would lead to removal. Refer to Section B8, above, to assist you in making such a determination.

5. Applicant's conditional residence has not been determined: An applicant who has obtained conditional residence must file a petition, either file Form I-751 jointly with the US citizen spouse, or by himself or herself via a waiver, to remove the conditions on permanent residence. Many I-751 petitions to remove conditions of residence are taking a long period of time. In the meantime, the applicant has become eligible for naturalization. Just because a Form I-751 has not been adjudicated should not deter an applicant to apply for naturalization. An applicant who is waiting for removal of the conditions on permanent residence could still apply for citizenship.8 If the naturalization interview comes first, the BCIS would also be forced to adjudicate the Form I-751 application.


1 False immaterial testimony cannot be used to establish deportability. See Ramero v INS, 39 F.3d 977 (9th Cir. 1994). See also Plewa v. INS, 77 F. Supp 2d 905 (N.D. Ill. 1999) (in which the court held that failure to disclose an immaterial arrest based on erroneous advice from an immigration counselor did not disqualify the applicant from establishing good moral character even though the applicant lied under oath to the INS examiner).

2 While homosexuality used to be a bar, it has been relaxed over the years and should now be totally irrelevant in light of the recent Supreme Court decision in Lawrence et al v. Texas (No. 02-102, Decided June 26, 2003), available at http://laws.findlaw.com/us/000/02-102.html. According to BCIS Interpretations at 316.1(7), a "showing of good moral character is precluded where the homosexual practices have adverse public effects: when the homosexual act involves minors, or the use of threat or fraud, or the taking or giving of money or anything of value, or the act of solicitation thereof in a public place, or the homosexual act itself is engaged in a public place, or the conduct is violative of marital vows. "

3 See General Counsel Memo to Eastern Regional Counsel, reproduced in 76 Interpreter Releases 562-63, 573-75 (Apr. 12, 1999).

4 The practitioner must take care to find out that none of the organizations has been designated by the Secretary of State as a terrorist organization pursuant to INA 219(a).

5 Persons who served honorably in the US military during times of war, INA 329, or persons who have honorable military service aggregating three years, INA 328, are exempted from this bar. Also, if a client who is in removal proceedings is prima facie eligible for naturalization, it is possible to file a motion for termination. See Gatcliffie v. Reno, 23 F. Supp. 2d 581 (D.V.I. 1998) (district court reversed and remanded naturalization denial because the deportable convictions were outside the period of good moral character).

6 In such instances, the practitioner should examine whether the applicant properly exercised "portability." Pursuant to INA 204(j), an individual whose application for adjustment of status pursuant to Section 245 has been filed and remains unadjudicated for 180 days or more shall remain valid with respect to a new job if the individual changes jobs or employers if the new job is in the same or a similar occupational classification as the job for which the petition was filed.

7 Prior to filing the Form N-400, the attorney should advise the client to file a waiver of the immigrant visa requirement under INA 211(b) on a nunc pro tunc basis.

8 See exchange of correspondence between Paul Novak, Director of Vermont Service Center, and a New York attorney, Timothy Herrick, reproduced in 79 Interpreter Releases 66 (January 14, 2002).


About The Author

Cyrus D. Mehta, a graduate of Cambridge University and Columbia Law School, practices immigration law in New York City. He is First Vice Chair of the American Immigration Law Foundation and recipient of the 1997 Joseph Minsky Young Lawyers Award. He is also Chair of the Immigration and Nationality Law Committee of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. He frequently lectures on various immigration subjects at legal seminars, workshops and universities and may be contacted at 212-425-0555 or info@cyrusmehta.com.


The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.


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