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March 1, 2021

With immigration reform topping news headlines, the phrase “pathway to citizenship” is everywhere. But what exactly do those catchy buzzwords mean for immigrants in the United States? 

In February, the Democrats introduced a comprehensive immigrant reform bill, the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021. The proposed bill outlines an eight-year “pathway to citizenship” for qualified undocumented immigrants, with an expedite pathway for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) recipients. While this proposed bill provides some much-needed optimism to our immigrant communities, it is imperative to remember that it is only a proposal. The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 will certainly undergo rigorous debate and revision in Congress, which could significantly change or eliminate these proposed pathways. 

In the meantime, immigrants should focus on the existing “pathways” to lawful status and, eventually, citizenship through the naturalization process. Before immigrants can apply for U.S. citizenship, they must first become lawful permanent residents (LPR). LPRs, or “green card holders,” are non-citizens who are lawfully authorized to live and work permanently within the United States. 

In order to obtain LPR status, immigrants must demonstrate that they are admissible to the United States and immediately eligible for an immigrant visa through an underlying petition. The most common eligibility categories include petitions through family, employment, special immigrant status, refugee/asylee status, human trafficking and crime victim status, victims of abuse, and other categories which are dependent on country of origin or other classifications. The applicable process for applying for lawful permanent resident status, either at a consulate abroad or from within the United States, depends on the immigrant’s specific circumstance. 

Once an immigrant is granted LPR status, the countdown to citizenship through naturalization can officially begin. To apply for naturalization, an LPR must meet general eligibility requirements, which include demonstrating that they have been a lawfully admitted permanent resident of the United States for the requisite amount of time. Most commonly, that timeframe is at least five years. For spouses of U.S. citizens, that timeframe is shortened to at least three years, provided they have been and continue to be living in marital union with their U.S. citizen spouse.

As a part of the naturalization process, immigrants are interviewed by a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) officer at their local field office. During the interview, the USCIS officer will review the applicant’s naturalization application, assess his or her good moral character, evaluate his or her ability to read, write and speak basic English, and administer a civics test. If the application for naturalization is approved, only one step remains – taking the Oath of Allegiance to the United States!  

Once an immigrant takes the Oath of Allegiance to the United States, the “pathway to citizenship” is complete. Some of the benefits of U.S. citizenship include the ability to live and work permanently in the United States, apply for a U.S. passport, vote in federal, state, and local elections, and petition for certain family members to become LPRs. 

While the proposals of expanded “pathways to citizenship” are exciting, it is important to focus on existing benefits and eligibility requirements. If you have questions about your current pathway, please contact McGee Immigration Law to schedule a free legal consultation.  

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