Every election year there is a significant spike in citizenship applications. However, because of the intensity of the immigration debate for the 2016 election, there has been a particularly dramatic increase in naturalization fillings. As the Washington Post reports: “According to the most recent national statistics, more than 185,000 citizenship applications were submitted in the final three months of 2015, up 14 percent from the year before and up 8 percent compared with the same period ahead of the 2012 elections.”
Of course, many legal permanent residents are excited to become citizens in order to exercise one of the most important American rituals: voting in state, local, and national elections. This cycle in particular, however, has many applicants motivated by fear. Legal residents are anxious that federal immigration policies could change against their favor depending on November’s outcome. The majority of the issues that I describe in this essay are applicable to immigration law generally. However, because of unprecedented interest in the citizenship process this year, I will be focusing on the importance of receiving quality legal advice before attempting to naturalize.
The N400 Application for Naturalization is one of the more straightforward legal forms. Unlike an Affidavit of Support or Application for Adjustment of Status, the information requested is usually readily available to an applicant, as the focus is biographical. However, many of the issues that can result in a denial or – even worse – the commencement of deportation proceedings are not readily visible to applicants. Often, applicants have the attitude: “I have a green card, I pay my taxes every year, and my one arrest was dismissed and sealed. Of course I am entitled to become a US citizen.” Though it can be very disappointing to hear, this inclination is frankly wrong and potentially dangerous. Every applicant should have their immigration, family, and criminal histories thoroughly examined by a quality immigration attorney before attempting to naturalize.
Many applicants underestimate the level of scrutiny given their applications. From their perspective, they have submitted their biographic details many times prior (i.e. their I-485, I-765, I-751, I-90, and a trove of other forms). But naturalization is the last opportunity for USCIS to review their entire history in detail and find any unaddressed fault. What appears to clients to be the “cherry on top” of a long process, is actually the point of most rigorous scrutiny by immigration officials. Obviously then, it is of vital importance to employ diligent and experienced legal counsel before attempting to naturalize.
It is critical to mention the extremely high rates of immigration legal fraud, which is committed by predatory “attorneys” and unscrupulous public notaries. Immigrants face many challenges that make the experience of daily life very challenging – language barriers, low-income employment, large families to support, and uncertain futures. They require assistance navigating a legal world that is incomprehensible to them and therefore make an ideal target for swindlers and thieves.
In addition to robbing immigrants of thousands of dollars, these crooks can jeopardize their legal status down the line by providing inaccurate or fraudulent information.
Additionally, many immigrants spend a large arc of their life in the immigration process: it begins with their own acquisition of legal residence, then naturalization, and the petitioning of other family members to join them in the United States. However, over the course of many years, their legal counsel changes. Therefore, the information available to each attorney throughout the different cycles can be inconsistent. Previous legal counsel may have made serious non- disclosure mistakes or intentional omissions in order to gain an immigration benefit. Therefore, solicitation of another benefit further down the process may be complicated or jeopardized based on prior filings. Having a single, reliable, and reputable attorney throughout a family’s immigration process is the ideal way to create a life in the US. This way, clients and their attorney can plan for twenty years and not the one or two years it takes to adjudicate many common benefits.
Criminal matters can have serious immigration consequences for clients contrary to the common sense or intuition of applicants. For example, such minor infractions as marijuana convictions can amount to deportable offenses. Under state law in New York, possession of a small amount of marijuana is a minor offense. Applicants are often advised by criminal attorneys to plead guilty, pay a small fee, and have the matter over with. However, under federal immigration law, a guilty plea is considered a conviction (along with many other alternative pleas) and two controlled substance offenses qualify an applicant as deportable. Often, these issues are very counterintuitive to the layperson.
There are other common matters that, though they appear to applicants to be resolved at the state or local level, can result in serious immigration consequences down the line. These topics include domestic arguments/fights, prostitution, gambling, and many others. A client can be on his second marriage and obtain his residence – in good faith – through his/her spouse. But if the divorce was never done properly, their second marriage is rendered null and their legal status can be revoked. Non-disclosure of children can surface at a naturalization interview and jeopardize an applicant’s status in a similar way.
When an applicant goes into their USCIS interview they should be confident and secure in their knowledge that their immigration, family, and criminal histories have been thoroughly vetted by a capable immigration attorney. An applicant should have no lingering doubts or concerns because naturalization is the final and most scrutinized phase of the immigration process.
USCIS will analyze every aspect of their history. The consequences of not vetting an N400 prior to filing can be dire. Therefore, the value of quality immigration counsel cannot be overstated.
Contact an honest and diligent attorney can be the difference between taking the Oath of Allegiance or being put on a plane back to a country you haven’t been to for thirty years.