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February 11, 2009 > Citizenship is important

Citizenship is important

Submitted By Barbara Wong

With the inauguration of our new president and the shift to a new administration, it's helpful to pause and ask, "What does it mean to be a U.S. citizen, and what steps need to be taken to become one?"

Those born in the United States probably have no clue. The citizenship, or naturalization, process is rarely given a second thought by natural-born citizens unless they have family members or friends who are foreign born. The path to citizenship is truly a path to full participation in our society.

What are the benefits and responsibilities of citizenship? To start, only U.S. citizens may vote in a presidential election and serve on a jury. While neither of those activities may seem like motivating factors for some, there are also benefits conferred to U.S. citizens that are not available to even long-time, permanent residents. For example, if you are arrested or convicted of a crime and are NOT a U.S. citizen, you can face deportation. That is quite a shock to many long-time residents who may never have thought about securing citizenship, since they are afforded the same ability to work and travel using their permanent resident card. Not that potential deportation is reason for seeking citizenship, but it does put in perspective how truly vested one is in his or her adopted country.

In addition, citizens are afforded the full protection and rights of a member of the United States. Travelers benefit from courtesies granted to U.S. citizens by other countries. For example, a citizen of India normally would need to secure a visa in order to enter Canada. These restrictions do not apply to a U.S. citizen. Citizenship also affords a permanent home in the United States and vested rights and interests that are not easily stripped away.

Before taking steps to become a citizen, assess the qualifications to apply. The most common route is residing in the U.S. as a permanent resident for five years and being "physically present" on U.S. soil for at least half that period. Applicants must complete and submit the required U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services form, along with appropriate documentation and fees. Although processing times vary, notification of acceptance of the application - and subsequent steps for scheduling biometrics, fingerprints, and a naturalization/citizenship interview - can take six to 12 months from the application date. Passing an oral and written exam on U.S. civics is required. The federal government recently redesigned the examination process to make it more meaningful and encourage new citizens to learn and understand the values we share as Americans.

U.S. citizenship is a significant step for many. Although the process is relatively straight forward, it carries significance beyond its simplicity. Becoming a citizen can mean taking a step away from the past and committing to recognizing the U.S. as your home and adopted country.

Barbara Wong is a resident of Fremont and practices U.S. immigration law at Berry Appleman & Leiden LLP in San Francisco.

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