- US Immigration laws are very complex, bureaucratic, and sometimes a bit confusing. However, it’s not so daunting if you break it down into the individual steps.
- For a family member to immigrate another family member to the US (adults and children), the sponsoring family member must submit an I-130 (Petition for Alien Relative) to the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS)/US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
- Once approved, the USCIS moves your case to the Department of State (DoS) National Visa Center (NVC). The one(s) immigrating to the US must complete the visa application, return it to the NVC, and pay the applicable fees.
- Once the application is processed, the immigrant(s) will attend a Consular Interview at their local US Embassy. Once approved, the fully-approved visa will be mailed to the immigrant(s)
- Immigrants can then make travel arrangements to physically enter into the USA.
- Upon admission into the USA, the immigrant(s) will receive a US Permanent Residence Card (AKA Green Card). Children over 18 and other relatives will then likely need to reside here for 5 years prior to applying for Naturalization via the USCIS N400 (Application for Naturalization).
- In most cases, minor children with at least one US citizen parent are eligible for automatic US citizenship if under age 18 at the time of their arrival in the US.
- It is highly recommended that their parents submit an N600 (Application for US Citizenship Certificate) to the USCIS
- Once the US citizenship certificate is received, the parent(s) can then apply for a US passport for their newly-immigrated child. The process is now complete.
As you can tell by the above summary, immigrating to the US and becoming a citizen is quite a process or perhaps even a downright adventure. However, fear not, as the system does work when properly followed, and the process is much less dauting when taken one step at a time.
As we all know, there are many different ways to enter the USA from a foreign country. There are basically 4 types of US visas: tourist, work, immigrant, and student. Each has its own process/protocols. Hence, I will address only the family member-sponsored immigrant visa in this particular writing. I may not even address each case type, but I do intend to address the most common.
Where do I start?
Anyone wishing to immigrate to the US via a family-sponsored immigrant visa must first find a sponsor. That person must be an immediate family member and at least a US permanent resident. US citizens sponsor their spouses, fiancés, children, and siblings, but not aunts/uncles, cousins, nor nephews/nieces. Permanent residents may only sponsor their spouses and unmarried children (whether minor or adult).
First Step – The Petition for Alien Relative
The sponsor/petitioner must first submit an I-130 (Petition for Alien Relative) to the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS)/US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and pay the applicable fee. The petition will establish the sponsor, the one being petitioned, and the relationship between the two. The USCIS will then conduct a background check on all involved parties and, if none have a significant criminal record, their stated relationship appears to be legitimate, then the USCIS will likely approve the petition and notify the petitioner and the US Department of State (DoS) National Visa Center (NVC).
Step 2 – Hurry up and wait!
As the old Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers tune goes “The waiting is the hardest part.” Once the NVC electronically receives the approved petition (immediately upon USCIS approval), the person(s) petitioned will be placed on a wait list that will be serviced on a first-in-first-out basis within the Family Immigrant Preference Category he/she is in. The Family Immigrant Preference Category is based on the relationship between the petitioner and the one(s) petitioned, the country-of-origin of the petitioned, and potentially other factors as well. For a list of Family Immigrant Preference Category codes and current wait times for certain countries (September 2022), check the latest Visa Bulletin by the DoS Bureau of Consular Affairs.
This waiting period is driven by the fact that the number of visas issued for a given Family Immigrant Preference Category is limited to a maximum quantity per fiscal year, coupled with the fact that there are normally more applicants in queue than there are available visas at a given time. In general, less developed countries that have large numbers of visa applicants, such as Mexico and the Philippines, have the longest wait times.
However, certain immediate relatives of US citizens are exempt of the wait. These include children under 21, parents, and spouses. Hence, their only “wait” is the approximate 6-month processing time of a visa application. In general, the next shortest wait times are unmarried adult children of US citizens, and the longest waits are for siblings and married children of US citizens.
Also, and regardless of how long the initial wait, in most cases, once a given person’s visa is granted, minor children, parents, and spouses may accompany him/her to the US without any additional wait.
Step 3 – The Consular Interview
Once a visa becomes available to the applicant, he/she is contacted by the NVC to attend an interview by the US Consulate at the nearest US Embassy. This is usually in that person’s home country, but not always, since not every country has a US embassy.
Prior to the interview, the visa candidate undergoes a thorough background check, medical exam, plus certain vaccinations are required. Once a particular visa is granted, the applicant leaves his/her current passport with the US Consulate. The US Consulate will, in turn, paste the visa onto an empty page of that person’s passport and immediately return that person’s passport via expedited/express mail or via special courier.
The interview, itself, is probably the most pivotal point in the entire process, as that’s the final gate of approval and often where there is the greatest likelihood for something to go wrong. The questions asked during the interview will mainly verify the information on the visa application and maybe request some additional information about the applicant, his/her family, and/or his/her background. The key is, of course, to always be honest, as the consulate likely already knows the answer to some questions he/she might ask. If you lie to the consulate, there is a good chance your visa will be denied, and you might be barred from re-applying for as long as 10 years. So, please, always be honest, even if the answer might seem to weaken your case. Again, the consulate probably already knows the answer and he/she is verifying the accuracy of your documentation and your integrity. Meanwhile, I strongly recommend that you prepare for the interview to ensure it will go smoothly and that there will be no surprises.
Step 4 – Make your travel plans and go!
Now for the fun part that you have been so anxiously awaiting! It’s time to book those flights and go to your desired port of entry. Of course, you can go via ground transportation if from an adjoining country such as Mexico. (You can visit the US from Canada for short periods without a visa.) Once processed in via US Customs, you will then be an official US immigrant – congratulations and welcome!
Normally, within a couple weeks, you will automatically receive your US Permanent Resident Card (AKA Green Card) from the USCIS. That, combined with your passport from your country of origin, will enable you to leave and get readmitted into the US. A green card is usually good for 10 years, and you can usually renew it as that time approaches. Meanwhile, until you receive your green card, your Immigrant Visa will serve as adequate documentation that you have been properly admitted into the USA.
Some people are content as permanent residents, as you can work here, buy real estate here, etc. The main limitations are you cannot vote nor serve on a jury, and you might be ineligible for certain jobs that require US citizenship. It’s also usually fairly easy and straightforward to renew your Green Card every 10 years. However, there is no 100% guarantee that your renewal request will be granted, especially if you have amassed a criminal record and/or have not spent enough time physically in the US.
However, it seems most others wish to proceed to the next step of becoming a US citizen. In such cases, Step 5a or 5b would then apply, depending on your situation.
Step 5a – Apply for and obtain naturalization (optional/recommended)
Most adults with Green Cards need to live/work in the USA for at least 5 years prior to being eligible for naturalization. However, as that time approaches (usually up to 90 days prior), one can apply for naturalization by completing/submitting a N400 (Application for Naturalization) to the USCIS.
Once the N400 is processed, the naturalization process invokes a live scan and background check that goes back to the time of admittance into the USA followed by an interview with a USCIS immigration officer. Like the visa interview, the interviewer will go over what’s on the N400 and ask some follow-up questions regarding what is on the form. Again, being truthful during the interview is paramount. The interview also includes an English literacy test (oral and written) plus an oral exam of up to 10 US civics questions. Prior to the interview, the USCIS will send you a booklet that will help you prepare for the test. Again, this interview is a critical point in the naturalization process, and I strongly urge you to prepare for the naturalization interview and test.
Once you complete the interview, you will be scheduled to formally take oath in court. As part of the Oath Ceremony, you will be asked to swear that you are committed to the USA and will do everything that’s required of a US citizen. This is not a major gate per se. Just think of it more like a graduation/commencement ceremony and be prepared to be celebrated as a new US citizen. 😊
At that time, you will then immediately be presented with your Naturalization Certificate. That will be your proof of citizenship in the same way as a birth certification for a US-born person (automatically a citizen by birth). You can then immediately register to vote and apply for your US Passport, using your Naturalization Certificate as proof of citizenship.
Step 5b – Obtain derivative citizenship (optional/recommended)
In general, minor children of US citizens who obtained their citizenship after the child was born or adopted are eligible for derivative citizenship under the Child Citizenship Act of 2000. The main requirements for this path to citizenship:
- The child’s US citizen parent must be his/her legal parent by either birth or adoption.
- The child must be under 18 years old at the time of initial admission into the US.
- The child must be in the physical custody of and living with the US citizen parent(s) at the time of entry and thereafter.
Theoretically, such citizenship is automatic. However, the burden of proof is on the parent/child to prove the child’s eligibility for this particular type of citizenship. And proving automatic citizenship can be arduous and difficult. Thus, it is always best to obtain objective documented evidence of citizenship. This is accomplished by completing/submitting a N600 (Application for Certificate of Citizenship) to the USCIS. One can submit a N600 immediately upon entry to the USA.
Once the N600 is approved, the child will be given a Certificate of Citizenship that will serve as lifelong proof of US citizenship, in the same way as a Birth Certificate or Naturalization Certificate. It can then be used to obtain a US passport. If the child is 14-17 years old, he/she will also be required to take oath prior to receiving his/her Certificate of Citizenship, in the same way as with a naturalized citizen. No specific preparation is needed. You will just need to show up on time with your child and ensure he/she is appropriately dressed. And, again, be prepared to be celebrated! 😊
Additional Topic: What if I don’t apply for a Citizenship Certificate for my child?
Legally, the N600/Certificate of Citizenship is optional. However, as stated earlier, foregoing it carries significant burdens and risks.
Case in point: I have a relative who immigrated to the US and eventually became a US citizen via naturalization. Once he became a citizen, he then immediately petitioned his son to the US. As soon as his son arrived in the US (prior to his 18th birthday) and obtained his Green Card, he immediately submitted a N600 on behalf of his son. He decided to apply for his son’s US passport in parallel while awaiting the N600 process/Certificate of Citizenship from the USCIS (typical 6-month processing time). His immigration attorney wrote a very thorough letter to the DoS US Passport Center that clearly articulated his son’s eligibility for derivative citizenship via the Child Citizenship Act of 2000. The DoS never issued the passport, but they didn’t deny the application either. They kept asking more and more intrusive questions and requesting more and more documentation proving the father-son relationship. It was frustrating because they would answer one set of questions thinking that would satisfy the DoS’s concerns; however, the DoS would only come back with additional questions that were unrelated to the prior sets.
Long story short, they finally decided to cancel the passport application and wait for the Certificate of Citizenship. Upon receiving it, he immediately reapplied for his son’s US passport, and it was immediately granted without any questions or problems.
So, why was the DoS so hesitant prior to the Certificate of Citizenship? No one, including his immigration attorney, had a clear answer. My speculation is that the entire process involves two agencies with two mutually exclusive scopes:
- The USCIS – US authority that grants citizenship
- The DoS – US authority that grants visas and passports
The DoS normally expects proof of citizenship in the form of a single document when processing passports. In this case, such documentation was lacking (prior to obtaining the Certificate of Citizenship), which put the DoS in the awkward position of having to determine citizenship eligibility – clearly outside their scope and the job of the USCIS. Hence, the cognizant passport officer(s) likely took a very risk-adverse approach because he/she didn’t want to run the risk of making a decision that might later get overturned by the USCIS.
Another scary aspect of not having a Certificate of Citizenship: Even if the DoS somehow decides to grant a US passport without the Certificate of Citizenship, passports have to be periodically renewed. There is no guarantee that, upon any future renewal, the cognizant DoS officer/agent will be comfortable granting it, thereby leaving you without any proof of US citizenship at all.
So, based on this real-life story and the recommendations from multiple immigration attorneys, adoption agencies, etc., I strongly believe one should simply go ahead and complete this important last step in the process and not consider it an option. Yes, it’s another step and another expense, but the end result is a lifetime of peace-of-mind for your child, and the consequences of not doing it could be far worse.