Published March 21, 2017


To be sure, a foreign national residing in the U.S. as a lawful permanent resident (aka “green card” holder) is not required to apply for U.S. citizenship.   That is, for whatever reasons or no reason, a green card holder has the option of living the rest of their life in the U.S. without seeking U.S. citizenship.    Of course there are downsides to such a decision, such as having to renew a green card every 10 years, not having the right to vote, and having limits on the type of immigration petitions you can file on behalf of family members as well as limits on the amount of time you can remain outside the U.S.    For permanent residents thinking about U.S. citizenship and filing an N-400 Application for Naturalization, here are 4 concerns to keep in mind:

1)    Criminal Issues:   Lawful permanent residents who have been convicted, or even just arrested, on a criminal charge – and either before or after being approved for permanent residence – need to be concerned about not only whether their application for citizenship will be denied, but also whether removal proceedings might be initiated against them. To be sure, not all criminal activity will prompt denial of an N-400 application or the initiation of removal proceedings.  Instead, the final outcome of the   N-400 application process will depend on the nature of the criminal charges or conviction, when the criminal activity took place and whether a conviction was entered.   While it is no guarantee of success and there are some exceptions to the rule, an applicant for naturalization should, at the very least, have a clean criminal record for the 3 or 5 year statutory eligibility period.

 2)     The State of the Marital Union:  Green card holders who were approved for permanent residence by way of their marriage to a U.S. Citizen or permanent resident, but later separated or divorced from their petitioning spouse, will usually end up having to answer detailed questions about their marital history during a naturalization interview.  This is especially true in cases where the marriage dissolved within a relatively short period following green card issuance. Applicants in this type of situation can expect their interviewing officers to be curious, if not suspicious, about the sincerity of the marriage, and should be prepared to thoroughly address questions concerning the timing and reasons for separation and the location of all of the couple’s residences.   

On the other hand, just because a marriage based green card holder gets divorced does not mean they become ineligible for U.S. citizenship.  It’s just that the applicant should be prepared to document that the underlying marriage was genuine and that the couple resided together in a good faith relationship. In the worst cases, the N-400 application will be denied, and sometimes, if evidence of flagrant marriage fraud comes to light, the applicant may find themselves having their green card revoked and needing a defense in removal proceedings.

 3)    Extended Travel Outside the U.S. During Statutory Period:  If, during their qualifying residence period, an applicant has spent more time outside the U.S. than in the U.S., they can expect to have their application denied.   If during the qualifying resident status period, the applicant spends more than 6 months outside the U.S. during any single departure, the applicant also faces a strong possibility of denial, although under certain circumstances such an extended trip outside the U.S. is excusable and will not be grounds for a denial.   To be sure, denial of an application on this basis does not usually involve any other negative consequences, and does not foreclose the possibility of a new application being submitted in the future once the applicant accumulates the requisite physical presence in the U.S.

4)    Voters or Voter Registrants:    It is against the law for a non-U.S. citizen to vote or register to vote in federal and state elections.  Applicants for U.S. citizenship will likely have their applications denied if they either registered to vote or voted during the qualifying eligibility period.   In some cases, removal proceedings may be initiated.   It should be noted, however, the lack of safeguards in all aspects of the voting and registration process, especially at DMV’s where voter registration is automatically offered to applicants for drivers licenses, often leads to non-citizens being mistakenly registered and given the impression that non-citizen voting is legal.   

The citizenship interview frequently becomes a confessional for these mistaken registrants and voters.    Nevertheless, there indeed exist circumstances where mistaken registrants or voters are excused and are approved for citizenship.    However, proceeding with an application in such circumstances comes with the risk of not just having the application denied, but also the possibility of being placed in removal proceedings.    Non-U.S. citizens who have mistakenly registered or voted must assess these risks before filing their N-400 applications


PUBLISHED March 21, 2017– “IMMIGRATION LAW FORUM” Copyright © 2017, By Law Offices of Richard Hanus, Chicago, Illinois