3 Most Common Ways Immigrants Obtain Citizenship

Getting immigration help or information on how to become a U.S. citizen can be difficult. The process for obtaining citizenship depends on how you arrived in the country, how long you’ve resided in the country and whether you have any family members who are citizens. In many cases, the best way to figure out the right path involves contacting an immigration attorney to discuss your specific situation and options.

Some methods of transitioning from visitor to lawful permanent resident are more common than others. In many cases, the options available allow immigrants to obtain a green card in order to be a legal permanent resident. Once they obtain the green card, individuals follow the steps to become a naturalized citizen. The sections below go over common methods individuals may use to arrive in the United States, become a permanent resident and then obtain citizenship.

Although President Donald Trump’s policy focus has been on illegal immigration, he has also mentioned wanting to limit legal pathways to citizenship, including birthright citizenship and citizenship through military service. Additionally, he has proposed limiting visas issued to immigrants from certain countries and prioritizing immigrants who can prove they would not require public assistance when they arrive. Therefore, it may be harder to obtain full citizenship going forward.

It is also important to keep in mind that if an individual with a visa violates U.S. law, he or she risks facing immigration court and deportation. A visa is not a guarantee of citizenship. Therefore, immigrants should take care to research U.S. laws regarding what they can do with their visas in order to remain in the country.

1. Family Sponsorship

Although President Donald Trump has long been a critic of what he calls “chain migration,” family sponsorship remains a legal and valid way for someone to become a lawful permanent resident. About 65 percent of visas are granted through family sponsorship, making this method the single most common way to obtain a green card and get on the path to citizenship.

You cannot sponsor your parents or grandparents for a green card. However, you can sponsor the following relatives:

  • Unmarried children who are 21 years of age or older
  • Married children of any age and their spouses
  • Siblings, if the petitioner is 21 years of age or older
  • A married spouse

It is important to understand what visa you qualify for, because some visas offer a path to citizenship while others do not. For instance, marrying a U.S. citizen can grant you an IR-1 visa, while marrying a lawful permanent resident can grant you a more limited F2-A visa. You can enter the U.S. on a conditional green card and then remove the condition upon marrying a U.S. citizen.

To sponsor a relative, you must complete and submit the Petition for a Relative form. You must also pay a filing fee and a biometric fee for your relative in most cases. Then, you must verify your own citizenship as well as your relationship to the relative you are attempting to sponsor.

You may need to contact an immigration lawyer to fill out the application accurately and provide the correct documentation. Once you’ve submitted your petition, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will review your application. If you are approved, the USCIS will then place the application on a waiting list.

The U.S. Department of State (DOS) releases bulletins regarding the visa waiting list with information on how many visas will be issued that year and what restrictions apply. For instance, it limits visas issued to countries where applications exceed that country’s limit (no more than 7 percent of visas can be issued to any one country in a year). In 2019, those restrictions apply to applications from family members in:

  • China.
  • El Salvador.
  • Guatemala.
  • Honduras.
  • India.
  • Mexico.
  • The Philippines.
  • Vietnam.

After you obtain a green card, you must live in the United States for five years before you are eligible to apply for full citizenship. If you obtain citizenship, you can obtain a U.S. citizen identification card.

2. Citizenship Through Employment and Entrepreneurship

Individuals who want to become legal permanent residents or citizens have the option to do so through their employers. Employers can sponsor immigrants, enabling them to obtain an employment-based temporary or permanent visa. Over 140,000 employee visas are granted annually. There are five different kinds of employee-based visas that an individual can get:

  • EB-1 visa: This is for individuals with extraordinary and unique skills in the sciences, arts, education, business or athletics. Individuals may be finance executives, professors, athletes and more.
  • EB-2 visa: This is for individuals with advanced degrees or for those with exceptional skills in the arts, sciences and business.
  • EB-3 visa: This is reserved for professional skilled workers.
  • EB-4 visa: This is reserved for those with special immigrant status including certain religious workers, certain U.S. foreign service employees and alien minors who are wards of the court, among others.
  • EB-5 visa: Also known as the entrepreneur visa, this is reserved for business investors who have invested at least $500,000 in a commercial enterprise employing at least 10 U.S. citizens.

You can also obtain lawful permanent residency by receiving a conditional green card and qualifying as an entrepreneur.

After an employee obtains a visa, he or she should maintain the visa and live in the United States for at least five years. After five years, he or she is eligible to apply for citizenship through naturalization.

It is important to note that there is a difference between a temporary work visa and a permanent work visa. Individuals looking to become citizens should keep in mind what visa they qualify for. Temporary visas can be renewed, but generally cannot be used to obtain citizenship. Immigrants can visit their local immigration office to learn more about what their visa does and does not allow them to do.

3. The Diversity Visa Lottery

The United States grants visas to immigrants who do not meet the above qualifications but still want to apply for lawful permanent residence. The Diversity Visa Lottery program allows immigrants from countries with historically low immigration rates to the U.S. to apply for a green card, enabling them to enter the country. Like with other visas, no more than 7 percent of visas available can go to any one country in a given year.

Individuals interested in qualifying through the diversity visa lottery will need to make sure people from their country are able to apply. The national visa center publishes a list of qualifying countries annually.

When you submit an application, you receive a confirmation number that you must retain in order to track the status of your application. You may be called in for an interview. Depending on the results of your interview, your application will be denied or accepted. If it is accepted, you receive a green card and can enter the U.S. as a lawful permanent resident.

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