We’re speaking with Attorney Ilona Bray, author of “Becoming a U.S. Citizen: A Guide to the Law, Exam, and Interview.”
NOLO: Ilona, immigration has become a hot button topic these days. You practiced immigration law with several nonprofit immigration agencies, and you’ve written book about marriage visas, and student and tourist visas. So maybe you can start out by explaining the difference between a visa and a green card.
ILONA BRAY: A green card just means that you have U.S. permanent residence, that being the right to live and work in the U.S. for an unlimited amount of time. The only condition there is that you have to not commit any crimes or do other things that would make you removable from the U.S. But as long as you sort of stay out of trouble, you can stay here pretty much forever. The reason they call it a green card is because the ID card that you carry used to be green; it’s actually now pink. A visa is a right to enter the United States; it’s really a physical thing. Your passport gets stamped with a visa by a U.S. consulate, and then you can come to the U.S., say as a student, a visitor, or on some other temporary status. The reason some confusion comes into this is that a visa is also used by some immigrants who come to the U.S. for permanent residence, for example the spouse of a U.S. citizen. So, going back to the temporary visitors, they might use the visa more than once, because they’re traveling in and out of the U.S. before their status or their visa expires. But for the permanent resident folks, it’s a one-time-use visa, so they would basically trade it in for a green card the second they enter the United States.
NOLO: I’m fascinated by the color change of the green card. Why did they change it to pink?
ILONA BRAY: I would love to know the answer to that; can’t tell you.
NOLO: I think some people are under the impression that if you marry a U.S. citizen, you automatically become a U.S. citizen, without a green card. Is there any way you can become a U.S. citizen without going through the green card process?
ILONA BRAY: Pretty much not, you’re right, that’s a common misconception. But in almost every case, you need a green card first, and then after you’ve had the green card for a certain number of years, you can apply to become a U.S. citizen, through the process that I describe in my book. And the actual process is called naturalization. The false information about that does lead to some really sad cases. I’ve heard of people showing up at the U.S. border or airport with their new husband or wife, and being told, “Nope, sorry, you’ve got to go home again and do a couple years worth of paperwork.” In fact, at that point, they probably wouldn’t even let the spouse in as a tourist, because they’d say, “No, you’re not a tourist; you want to live in the U.S. permanently, so get back on your own soil and go through the paperwork.” It’s an awful situation. Now, there are a couple of exceptions to whether you can skip over the green card and go right to citizenship, just small ones. One is, that if you’ve served with the U.S. military during certain wars, and that includes the current war in Iraq, and you signed up for the military while you were on U.S. territory, you can apply directly for citizenship or naturalization. The other exception is for children of U.S. citizens who were born overseas, and they can in many cases become citizens automatically, without even applying for it. And that actually applies to newly adopted children, too. So, even though they would come to the U.S. on a green card, the minute they get to the U.S., they just automatically become citizens; they don’t have to worry about the application or anything.
NOLO: Ilona, does everyone who has a green card qualify for U.S. citizenship?
ILONA BRAY: No, unfortunately. That’s a very personal sort of thing, depending on how you’ve acted basically since getting your green card. In theory, everyone should be able to go through the right number of years and then apply, but you’ve got to figure out whether you’re truly eligible before turning in that application.
NOLO: Okay, what about someone who’s in the country illegally now? Is it possible for that person to go from illegal status to green card or to citizenship?
ILONA BRAY: Pretty much not; only in the two situations that I described above, where if you’re in the military -- and you can actually serve in the U.S. military as an undocumented alien -- you can get a green card on that basis. And then the other one that I described were children who can become citizens through their parents. And they actually wouldn’t have been illegal in the first place, but they might have thought they were illegal, and that does sometimes happen. If someone thinks that they’re undocumented, they may get hauled into immigration court, and when the attorney starts researching their chain of descent, and discovers, “Oh, your parents were actually in the U.S. with citizenship at the right time.”
NOLO: One of the requirements for citizenship is that the person be of good moral character. You say in the book that someone lacks good moral character if they’ve abused drugs, avoided the military during wartime, or if they’ve had a drinking problem. Apparently those haven’t been impediments to political office in the U.S., so why are they so important to the USCIS?
ILONA BRAY: This is just one of the many areas where it seems like foreign-born people are held to higher standards than U.S. Citizens. Another area that comes up a lot is in the commission of really minor crimes. Stuff that would get you a slap on the wrist in a U.S. court, like, first time drug peddling between friends or, say, shooting a gun on the fourth of July, which I understand is sometimes a tradition in some communities… those would get an immigrant deported, believe it or not. Now, we can guess at the justification pretty easily, it’s that U.S. citizenship is the highest benefit that anyone can be granted under the U.S. immigration laws, so you want to set some limits on who it can be granted to. At the same time, I certainly would not object to raising the limits on who can gain political office in the United States.
NOLO: Let’s talk about the written test for a second. What’s the thinking behind that test? Why do new citizens need to know the name of the boat that brought the pilgrims to the U.S.? Is this the same sort of thing we were talking about before where we have to establish a higher standard?
ILONA BRAY: There’s some of that, and I think also it’s that, before we give someone the right to vote and to fully participate in U.S. society, it’s going to be helpful for that person to understand what philosophy this country operates by and some of its history. I think one of the questions is even what month our election’s held in, so, “What month do you go and vote in?” So that’s a good thing for people to know, to get them involved in U.S. civic life. But, you’re right, a lot of the exam seems really out-of-date, and a weird part of it is that, to make it standard, they’ve boiled it down to one hundred questions, which are published, and everybody knows what the questions are, and you can practically memorize them without knowing what the true meaning of the answers is, which is sort of awkward. And, some of the questions are just obscure. Like, I like to make a game sometimes out of asking my U.S. citizen friends to answer some of the weirder questions, like, there’s one, “Who said ‘Give me liberty or give me death’?” Or, one of the hardest ones on the exam is, “Can you name the thirteen original states in the U.S.?” And many of my friends failed these. I think I might fail the thirteen original states if you asked me right now, which I hope you won’t.
NOLO: Of the three requirements: the exam, the interview, and the swearing-in, the interview seems the most intimidating, especially for someone who may not have excellent English language skills. So, how hard is the interview, and should you bring an immigration attorney with you?
ILONA BRAY: The interview doesn’t have to be hard, just to give people some comforting thoughts first. It doesn’t last very long, it lasts about twenty minutes usually, and it contains almost no material that you don’t know to expect in advance if you’ve done a little preparation. Basically what they do is sit you down, swear you in, they go over your application, they’ll ask you a few of the one hundred questions to see if you can pass that, they’ll ask you to write a sentence in English, and all along the way you’re actually being tested on your English but you don’t really know it, because you’re interacting with the examiner. And that’s it. If you speak English pretty well, you should really do fine. Now, as you mentioned, it’s a lot harder for people who don’t speak English so well, and it can be a double-whammy if you get a USCIS officer who’s rude, or who’s having a bad day. I’ve been in citizenship interviews where I’m overhearing an interview being held with someone who doesn’t have an attorney, say, in the cubicle next to me, and sometimes just go from bad to worse because of a language barrier. Like, the interviewer may say, “Stand up,” the interviewee doesn’t understand, they don’t stand up, the interviewer gets frustrated, and it just goes from bad to worse. If something like that happens, actually, the person should ask to see a supervisor and just find a way to stop the interview for that day, because they can always reschedule for another day, hopefully with another person. Whether you need a lawyer is an interesting question. For some things, it actually would be helpful just to have a third person there, and a lawyer is your best bet. Like, in the situation I described when there’s a big misunderstanding over some simple language concerns, a lawyer can at least make everybody feel better and potentially understand what’s going wrong and fix it. They are not using their legal knowledge, but they’re awfully handy to have there. Not everyone needs a lawyer, and if their English is good, and their legal eligibility is solid, it can easily be done without. Some people, however, definitely need a lawyer. In fact, some people should be consulting with a lawyer far beyond the interview, when they’re putting their application together. But if they didn’t, it’s never too late to call up a lawyer and say, “Can you look over my application and come with me?” The people that would fall under that category are the ones who have legal issues in their case such as crimes, or the biggest concern would be if they weren’t eligible for their green card in the first place. For example, some people have managed to get a green card, say, as the unmarried child of a U.S. citizen, when in fact they were married and they just didn’t tell anybody coming in. Citizenship is a chance for them to open up the file again, look at all your personal history, figure out that problem, and then say, “Ah, I guess you don’t really have a green card, so you’re not only not going to get citizenship, you’re going to be put into immigration court proceedings and be removed from the country.” So, an immigration attorney can help figure out whether there are problems like that in the case. And they will in some cases say, “Don’t even apply. You’ve got a green card, you can sit happily in the U.S. infinitely, because you probably won’t come into contact with the immigration authorities on any other basis, but don’t put yourself in front of them by submitting this citizenship application.”
NOLO: Ilona, you’re an immigration attorney. Are you one of the attorneys who can get an applicant to the head of the line?
ILONA BRAY: I would never claim to be able to get anyone to the head of the line, and anyone who does claim that is probably not someone you want to be associate with, because it’s basically not possible. The immigration service, USCIS, is a frustrating bureaucracy, and I’m sure there are times when many attorneys have wished that someone would take a bribe or do something underhanded, but really, they don’t. For the most part, they operate according to law, except for a few weird things you hear occasionally in the news, where someone gets caught for taking a bribe or something. But they’re on the lookout for that; that’s not the way the agency operates, thank goodness. But I would say that it’s good to have an attorney who is professionally well connected, just because given that it’s such a bizarre bureaucracy, belonging to a professional association, like one called AILA, which is the American Immigration Lawyer’s Association, gets you in touch with other attorneys who can share tips, can share inside phone numbers, just something as simple as, “Who’s the latest supervisor for the adjustment of status unit that I call if my application gets lost?” That’s important information; it’s not underhanded, it’s just keeping up with what’s going on. And, AILA also actually holds something called liaison meetings, where the USCIC people consent to meet with attorneys and answer questions more or less once a month, and that’s a great chance for the attorneys to find out what’s really going on behind the scenes and to bring up concerns. So, someone who’s not connected in that sense, they could still do a good job legally in many ways, but they won’t have some of the secret tips on sort of the latest issues and ways to get around them.
NOLO: How many shots does an immigrant get at U.S. citizenship? Is it three tries and you’re out?
ILONA BRAY: Well, that depends. If the interview doesn’t go well, and you don’t get approved that day, it’s not necessarily the end of the line. And if the reason was that you failed the English or the U.S. History and Government exam, they’ll pretty much automatically bring you back; you’ll get a new appointment notice to come back within ninety days, and you can retry the exam, which is great. Sometimes it won’t be so systematic; they may say, “Well, you didn’t pass because we’re not sure you actually paid your taxes; provide us with a tax return.” Or, “We’re not sure that that marriage of yours that lasted one year and got you a green card was the real thing; you’ve got this divorce here. Bring us proof that it was a bona fide marriage.” So, in that case, you’ll have to supply the documents, and you’ll have to convince them, and it can drag on for a while, but there’s hope of eventually getting an approvable. If there’s a more serous problem, like I described earlier, with someone who wasn’t eligible for the green card in the first place, in that case, the denial of the citizenship application is pretty much an outright denial, and you would have to go to immigration court just to fight for your right to the green card.
NOLO: You wrote your book before 9/11. Based on what you know now, do you think the hurdles are higher for those seeking U.S. citizenship?
ILONA BRAY: The hurdles are higher for everybody, but it’s the least difficult for people applying for citizenship. They’ve had their green cards for a few years by now; they’re sort of presumed to have been settled in U.S. society, and there isn’t the big question of, “Who are you? You’re coming from outside the borders; we have to run five million security checks on you.” Now, they do still take your fingerprints, and they will still check them carefully, and more carefully then they would have before 9/11 and other terrorist events. But, it’s less of a problem for the citizenship applicants than for others. Now, there is one thing I should mention though, that can be a problem, which is, there is a problem on the citizenship application form, which is form N400, that asks you, “Are you associated with any groups?” And that’s a question that we attorneys like to encourage people to answer pretty fully, in the sense that civic involvement is a good sign; it shows that you have good moral character, which is one of the requirements for citizenship. But if you mention a group that is on the U.S.’s list of terrorist organizations, and that’s a pretty broad category these days, any group that provides funding in any way for anything considered violent or terrorist can be dubbed a “terrorist organization.” Then you’re going to have real trouble. So I would say, if you’re from a country that has any groups that might possibly be suspected, it’s worth checking with an attorney before putting that on your application. Or even if you don’t put it on your application, before going to your interview, just in case there’s some question about, “What group are you involved in, and what’s really the nature of that group?”