- What subjects does this web site cover?
- Why does this web site use the term "unauthorized immigration" instead of "illegal immigration"?
- What is the difference between authorized and unauthorized immigration?
- What is a green card?
- What are the steps to becoming a naturalized citizen?
- Are there any factors that would prevent a person, otherwise entitled, from becoming a citizen?
- What is political asylum?
- Who is born a U.S. citizen?
- Do naturalized citizens have the same rights as those who are citizens by birth?
- Do authorized immigrants have the same rights as citizens?
- Are there circumstances when the U.S. government can revoke a person's citizenship?
- Can a person be a citizen of the United States and another country?
- What responsibilities does a U.S. citizen have?
- For more FAQs and more detailed information, see the Immigration and Citizenship Services' FAQ.
Why does this web site use the term "unauthorized immigration" instead of "illegal immigration"?
We prefer this term for two reasons: (1) It is the term used in the literature and on the web sites of federal immigration agencies, like UCSIS and ICE; and (2) it is legally accurate to identify these immigrants' status by the U.S. government's preferred term. We sometimes also use the terms "undocumented immigration" and "illegal immigration" when appropriate. For example, we would not alter a quote from an outside source to conform to our preferred usage. Also, we would use these other terms when they would avoid confusion.
What is the difference between authorized and unauthorized immigration?
"Unauthorized immigration" occurs in two circumstances:
1. When immigrants have not applied for or received any form of official documentation that would allow them to legally work or reside in the United States.
2. When authorized immigrants overstay their authorized presence in the United States.
"Authorized immigration" occurs when an immigrant has applied for and received that official documentation. There are several forms of authorized immigration -from work visas to asylum to naturalization as a citizen.
What is a green card?
The so-called "green card" is an identification card that shows an immigrant holds the status of a lawful permanent resident. The card used to be printed on green paper. It no longer is, but the name has remained. To get a green card, a person must apply. U.S. law sets five areas of preferences for granting green cards:
1. Family-sponsored preferences for those related to U.S. citizens.
2. Employment preferences for those who have needed job skills.
3. Diversity immigration for those who come from countries with low rates of U.S. immigration.
4. Refugees admitted to the United States.
5. Those already granted political asylum.
What are the steps to becoming a naturalized citizen?
Lawful permanent residents may apply for citizenship if they meet certain criteria. They must:
• Have lived in the United States for a certain period (those married to a U.S. citizen must have lived here for three years; those in the U.S. armed forces must have lived here for one year; and all others, five years).
• Demonstrate a good moral character.
• Be able to read, write, and speak English.
• Be at least 18 years of age.
• Have basic knowledge of U.S. history and government.
• Take an oath of allegiance to the United States.
For more detailed information, check the web site of USCIS.
Are there any factors that would prevent a person, otherwise entitled, from becoming a citizen?
Several factors can bar a lawful permanent resident from becoming a U.S. citizen. Generally, they are circumstances that show the person does not have a "good moral character." A person can be barred from citizenship if the person:
• Has been convicted of one or more crimes involving moral turpitude (conduct that is harmful to others; something evil or morally wrong).
• Has been convicted of certain crimes involving illegal drugs.
• Is a "habitual drunkard."
• Practices polygamy.
Other restrictions are outlined in more detail at the web site of USCIS.
What is political asylum?
Persons entering the United States who can prove to an immigration court that they face persecution in their home country can receive political asylum (protection). These immigrants, called asylees or refugees, may work in the U.S. and even apply for a Social Security card. The United States defines a refugee according to an international treaty called the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. According to the treaty, a refugee is a person who has a "well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, [or] membership of a particular social or political opinion." The treaty also states that no country shall punish refugees who enter that country illegally as long as the refugees "present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence."
Who is born a U.S. citizen?
Any person born in the United States is automatically a U.S. citizen. The only exception is for persons born in the United States who are not subject to U.S. jurisdiction (legal control). For example, if a person's parents are foreign diplomats in the United States and have diplomatic immunity (protection from lawsuits and criminal prosecution under U.S. law) when that person was born, then that person would not automatically be a U.S. citizen.
Also any person born outside the United States is a citizen if one of the parents is a U.S. citizen.
Do naturalized citizens have the same rights as those who are citizens by birth?
Yes. Naturalized citizens share all rights possessed by citizens who are born in the United States except for one: Naturalized citizens cannot run for president or vice president. See U.S. Constitution, Article II, Section 1, Clause 5.
Do authorized immigrants have the same rights as citizens?
Authorized immigrants have many of the same basic rights as citizens. For example, they share in the rights as outlined in the Constitution's Bill of Rights. Also, all immigrants can sue anyone who may have harmed them in their home country under the Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789. Most important, the U.S. Constitution's 14th Amendment forbids state governments from depriving "any person...within its jurisdiction" of due process of law and equal protection of the laws. Authorized immigrants cannot, however, vote in political elections until they have been naturalized.
Are there circumstances when the U.S. government can revoke a person's citizenship?
Yes. Naturalized citizens will lose their citizenship if they commit fraud against the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service during the naturalization process (e.g., lie on a form). In addition, naturalized citizens will lose their citizenship if they:
• Are convicted of treason against the U.S. government.
• Hold an elected political office or policy-making government position in a foreign country.
• Aid a country at war with the United States.
People may also voluntarily give up their citizenship. The laws in many other countries require U.S. citizens to do this if they want to become citizens of those countries. A person who renounces his or her U.S. citizenship will likely never be able to regain it or even live in the United States again. The U.S. State Department outlines renunciation in more detail on its web site.
Can a person be a citizen of the United States and another country?
Yes. Being a citizen of two countries at once is called dual citizenship or dual nationality. This could happen in several circumstances:
• A person could be born in a foreign country to parents who are U.S. citizens. That person may be a citizen of both their country of birth and the United States.
• A person may be a citizen by birth in one country but still become naturalized as a citizen of the United States. Though the U.S. Oath of Allegiance technically requires new citizens to renounce their old nationalities, U.S. law does not require citizens to choose between their birth citizenship and their U.S. naturalized citizenship.
• A person may be a born U.S. citizen but marry a foreign national (citizen of a foreign country), becoming a citizen of both countries.
On the other hand, U.S. citizens may lose their U.S. citizenship if they intentionally seek to become citizens of another country. The U.S. State Department outlines the laws governing dual nationality on its web site.
What responsibilities does a U.S. citizen have?
Every U.S. citizen has specific mandatory responsibilities:
• To support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
• To obey the law.
• To pay taxes.
• To report for jury duty.
• To testify as a witness in court if given a summons (official order to appear in court). Male citizens must also register with the Selective Service (register for the draft) within 30 days of their 18th birthday.
All citizens have voluntary responsibilities, too. These include:
• To vote in federal, state, and local elections.
• To stay informed about community issues.
• To participate in local democratic institutions (e.g., city councils and school boards).
• To respect the rights and opinions of others.
George Sanchez, USC Professor of American Studies and History and Ethnicity
February 23, 2010—Hear Prof. Sanchez’s engaging lecture on the interplay of race, ethnicity, immigration, the U.S. Census, and the history of Southern California. He was addressing a group of educators as part of a professional development session for CRF’s Educating About Immigration curriculum held at the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy, Los Angeles.