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Refugees in America

How immigrants and refugees become U.S. citizens

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Each year, more than 700,000 people become American citizens.

Many arrive in the United States after escaping war and persecution. Some are resettled in the U.S. as refugees and others request asylum after reaching a U.S. border.

The U.S. immigration system can be extremely difficult to navigate and the application process to become a citizen alone can take a year or longer. Generally speaking, people applying for citizenship must successfully pass six stages or steps. Find out how the naturalization process works, how it has changed under the Trump Administration, and what you can do to support new Americans.

How does the citizenship process work? 

Step 1: Determine eligibility

To become U.S. citizens, immigrants must first become permanent residents—green card holders. The International Rescue Committee helps refugees and immigrants obtain green cards, a costly and lengthy process in itself.

After living in the U.S. for five consecutive years as lawful permanent residents (or three years if married to a U.S. citizen), green card holders can then apply for citizenship (there are exceptions for military veterans as well). Applicants must:

  • be at least 18 years old;
  • be of good moral character;
  • able to read, write and speak basic English.
  • demonstrate an understanding of the principles and ideals of the U.S. Constitution;
  • have a basic understanding of U.S. history and government;
  • take an oath of allegiance to the United States.

Step 2: Apply for naturalization

Naturalization is the process by which U.S. citizenship is granted to a foreign citizen or national. Once individuals have met the legal requirements for becoming citizens, they must submit an application form, with supporting documents and a $725 fee, to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

The IRC helps immigrants and refugees prepare their applications and documentation and guides them through the process, which can take nine to 26 months.  Over the past six years, the IRC has helped nearly 30,000 refugees and immigrants become U.S. citizens.

Step 3: Complete the biometrics screening

Applicants for citizenship will receive an appointment letter from the USCIS to be fingerprinted and photographed for the purpose of conducting multiple background checks and cross-checks by the Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Department of Homeland Security. All applicants must be cleared before the USCIS schedules an in-person interview.

Step 4: Complete the interview

Applicants are interviewed by USCIS officers who ask questions about their applications, backgrounds, character, understanding of the U.S. Constitution, and willingness to take an oath of allegiance.

Step 5: Take the civics and English tests

During the interview, a USCIS officer will test an applicant’s ability to read, write and speak basic English as well as his or her knowledge and understanding of U.S. history and government. Here's a sample civics question:

What is one thing Benjamin Franklin is famous for?
  • He was the leader of the Constitutional Convention.
  • He helped write The Federalist Papers.
  • He was the first Postmaster General of the U.S.
  • He discovered electricity.

In 1775, the Second Continental Congress appointed Benjamin Franklin the first postmaster general. He was also a U.S. diplomat, the oldest member of the Constitutional Convention, the writer of “Poor Richard’s Almanac” and started the first free libraries. While he did not discover electricity, Franklin was a pioneer in the study of electricity and made many important contributions to the science.

Certain applicants, because of age, disability or length of permanent residency, are exempt from the English requirement and may take the civics test in the language of their choice.

A USCIS officer typically asks applicants up to 10 questions (from a list of 100) covering principles of American democracy, system of government, geography, rights and responsibilities, and history. Applicants must answer six of the 10 questions correctly to pass the civics test.

The English test has three components: reading, writing, and speaking. Applicants are tested on all three components during the interview.

The IRC conducts English and civic classes, one-on-one tutoring, mock interviews, and general information sessions to help applicants prepare for the tests.

Mulu Bahre at John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore

Mulu Bahre, born in Eritrea, became an American citizen in January 2016, six years after the IRC resettled his family in Baltimore.

Photo: Keith Lane/IRC

Step 6: Take the oath

Finally, successful applicants must take an oath of allegiance to the United States at a public ceremony before receiving their certificates of naturalization. They are now U.S. citizens. These public ceremonies are often celebrations, a time when new citizens recognize the large commitment and effort they have made to achieve their goal.

Mulu Bahre, born in Eritrea, became an American citizen in January 2016, six years after the IRC resettled his family in Baltimore.

“It was a big change for me, it was also a big commitment,” he said. “The day I went to be sworn in, that was full of joy for me. I was really excited and knew that there were more opportunities ahead. It made me feel like I belong here.”

Has the Trump administration made the citizenship process more difficult?

While Congress is responsible for enacting naturalization laws, the Trump Administration has made policy and operational changes that narrow the path to citizenship for new Americans.  

For one, prospective citizens are waiting longer for their cases to be processed with the average wait times doubling over the past three years. These delays could even have an impact on the 2020 election. There are nearly 300,000 aspiring Americans who would likely have naturalized in time to vote, but will not be able to do so because the USCIS was slow to adapt its operations for the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition, the USCIS is attempting to radically increase many application fees paid by immigrants and introduce a new fee for asylum applications filed with the agency. Following a lawsuit by the IRC and seven co-plaintiffs, these plans were temporarily blocked by a federal judge just before they were planned to go into effect in early October. These new, higher fees include a 65% increase for naturalization applications, creating what could be an insurmountable obstacle for nearly nine million lawful permanent residents. At the same time, most immigration and naturalization fee waivers for low-income, disabled, and other vulnerable immigrants would be eliminated.

These delays and obstacles prevent new Americans from fully participating in civic life through voting and other means, and make it more difficult for their families to reunite. Their local communities miss out as well. One study found that the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) would increase between $37 billion to $52 billion over 10 years if those eligible obtained U.S. citizenship. 

What can I do to support new Americans? 

The International Rescue Committee offers legal services and citizenship assistance to refugees, asylum seekers and other new Americans in 23 cities across the United States. Donate today to support our work in the U.S. and around the world.