The process of going from U.S. lawful permanent resident to naturalized U.S. citizen is a lengthy one, involving various requirements and exams. The idea is to make sure that U.S. citizenship; which is the highest status that can be granted under U.S. immigration law; is granted only to people who are and will continue to be productive, law-abiding members of our communities.
One of the requirements found in the U.S. immigration law on naturalization says that you must (during the required years leading up to your naturalization application) have been "a person of good moral character, attached to the principles of the Constitution of the United States, and well disposed to the good order and happiness of the United States." (See § 316(a) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, or I.N.A.)
The issue of showing good moral character could fill books. The main focus is usually to prove that the immigrant hasn't committed any crimes or drug violations. But there is some overlap between this and the requirement that you be well disposed to the good order and happiness of the United States and attached to the principles of its Constitution. Certain actions or behavior can be taken as indicators that you have not developed the required loyalty and allegiance. (For example, someone with terrorist affiliations would be able to show neither good moral character nor attachment to the U.S. Constitution.)
In addition, once U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has approved you for citizenship, you'll need to reaffirm your allegiance by swearing an oath expressing your loyalty. You'll most likely take this oath at a later date, at the ceremony where your citizenship is granted.
How the Applicant's Behavior Demonstrates Allegiance to the U.S.
Among the ways in which you will need to show attachment to the principles of the U.S. Constitution and that you're well disposed to the United States' good order and happiness include demonstrating that you:
- believe in the basic principles the U.S. was founded upon and are represented in the Constitution, such as freedom and equality for all, and a government that's based on a democratic, representational process
- are willing to obey the laws of the U.S. and of the individual states, and
- are willing to serve the U.S. and defend it from its enemies, if asked to do so by the U.S. government.
Someone who is apparently hostile to the basic form of government of the U.S., or who does not believe in the principles of the U.S. Constitution, will not be approved for naturalization.
When you file an application for naturalization, USCIS will look very carefully at your behavior during the five-year period that ends on the date you file your application. (Or, if you're married to and living with a U.S. citizen at the time of your application, or were married to a U.S. citizen but filed for a green card based on the law known as "VAWA," which protects battered spouses and children, this review period is three years.)
USCIS can go farther back into your past, though, and look for actions or conduct that show your attitude toward supporting and defending the United States.
What is USCIS looking for? In part, evidence that you do not possess the proper attachment to the U.S. Constitution based on the fact that you are now, or during the past five years (or three years) have:
- been a member of a proscribed organization, like a known terrorist group, or a totalitarian or authoritarian political party, such as the Communist Party
- been involved in the persecution of others or genocide
- been involved in espionage or sabotage
- evaded or avoided U.S. military service while a lawful permanent resident during a time of war or declared national emergency, or
- claimed exemption from U.S. military service because of foreign citizenship
USCIS looks particularly closely at your willingness to serve in the U.S. military. You can't become a naturalized citizen if you've been convicted of deserting the U.S. armed forces, that is, you left the military without being discharged.
Your status with the U.S. Selective Service Program is also important. Generally, men who lived in the U.S. between the ages of 18 and 25 must (unless they were lawful nonimmigrants) have registered with the Selective Service system. A failure to register may show an unwillingness to serve and defend the U.S., which may lead to a denial of your application.
Taking the Oath of Allegiance to the United States
After you apply for citizenship, you will be called in for a personal interview. At this time, your application will be reviewed and you will be tested on your knowledge of English, U.S. civics, and government. If all goes well, the USCIS examiner will approve your application.
But you're not a citizen yet. You become a U.S. citizen only after you take the Oath of Allegiance. Through this oath, you promise to:
- renounce or give up your allegiance and fidelity to all other countries (including your royal titles there, if you happen to have one!)
- support and defend the U.S. Constitution, and
- serve the U.S. by either fighting in the armed forces, performing non-combat duties in the armed forces, or working as a civilian (non-military) for the U.S. government, when required by law and if asked to do so.
Certain Applicants May Request Changes to the Oath
If you can give USCIS sufficient proof that your religion and beliefs don't allow you to take the oath of allegiance in its current form, or to serve in the military, you may be allowed to take the oath without the:
- promise to bear arms on behalf of the US
- promise to perform civilian (noncombatant or nonmilitary) services or duties for the U.S. government
- words "on oath," substituting this with the words, "and solemnly affirm," and/or
- the words "so help me God."
Also, USCIS may forgive ("waive") the oath requirement if an applicant has a physical or developmental disability or mental impairment that makes it impossible to understand its meaning.
Questions for Your Attorney
- I'm 33 years old. I've been in the U.S. with a green card for the past eight years, and I now want to become a US citizen. I never registered for Selective Service. Will that ruin my chances of becoming a citizen?
- My religious beliefs won't allow me to kill another human being for any reason. What kind of proof or documents do I need so that I can take the Oath of Allegiance without the promise to bear arms for the U.S.?
- I fled my home country because I was afraid that I would be forced to serve in the army, like many young men in my country are forced to do. Will that hurt my chances of becoming a U.S. citizen?
- I was forced to join my country's Communist Party when I was a child. Will this create problems for my citizenship application?