If you asked someone to explain the benefits of becoming a U.S. citizen, the likely response would be that it affords people the right to vote. And while that is true, voting is certainly not the only benefit of naturalization. In fact, there are many other benefits that, although they are often overlooked, are just as important.
1. Access to public benefits
You might be thinking to yourself, "I don't need access to public benefits, because I'm healthy and I work." However, good health is never guaranteed and everyone is getting older. And certain public benefits and programs – some of which are critically important for elderly and disabled people – are often unobtainable for non-citizens, including Lawful Permanent Residents (green card holders).
For example, Medicare, the federal health care program for people ages 65 and older, requires certain Lawful Permanent Residents to pay an expensive premium, depending on their work history and length of residence. Naturalization ensures access to Medicare on the same basis as all other Americans.
The same is true of Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a public program that pays benefits to disabled adults and low-income children. Lawful Permanent Residents who came to the United States in refugee status may receive SSI regardless of work history or length of residence, but generally only for seven years. After that, someone who came to the United States as a refugee generally must naturalize in order to continue receiving SSI benefits. So, naturalization can provide the most vulnerable populations with access to critical safety net programs as well as reduce financial strain on their families.
2. Ability to petition for family members
Adult U.S. citizens can file immigration petitions for additional categories of family members: their parents, siblings, and married adult sons and daughters. Lawful Permanent Residents can only file petitions for their spouses, minor children, and unmarried adult sons and daughters. Many people delay or avoid filing petitions for family members because of the costs and the very long waiting lists for certain categories. However, now is a critical time to file such petitions, because if federal immigration reform happens in the next few years, it will probably include changes to the current family-based immigration system.
No one knows exactly what a new immigration law would look like, but most bills that have been introduced recently include special consideration for those already on waiting lists. So, waiting periods could get much shorter for those who apply before a new law is passed. In addition, some of the proposed immigration laws would eliminate certain eligibility categories completely. For example, the category for siblings has often been discussed as a possible category to eliminate. If that were to happen, it's likely that those siblings already on waiting lists would still be able to immigrate based on their pending petition, but no one new would be able to apply.
3. Ability to travel and seek protection of the U.S. government abroad
If you are a Lawful Permanent Resident, it might be more difficult for you to travel internationally depending on your country of citizenship. Naturalization could mean much less expense and hassle. In addition, in the event of a personal crisis or civic unrest abroad, as a U.S. citizen, you could seek help and protection from the U.S. embassy or consulate abroad. If you are from a small country or a country that does not have a robust diplomatic presence, being a U.S. citizen could be very helpful in an emergency abroad.
4. Automatic citizenship for your Lawful Permanent Resident children under 18
When you naturalize, your children under 18 who are Lawful Permanent Residents automatically become U.S. citizens, too. (Note: this is not the case for undocumented children or children with temporary legal status.) Individuals cannot apply to naturalize on their own until they turn 18. What a gift to give your children!
5. Protection from deportation for yourself and your children
Like most immigrants, you probably follow the law very carefully, so the fact that certain criminal convictions could make you deportable might not be a great concern to you. But what about your teenage sons and daughters? Kids make mistakes, but immigrant kids are especially at risk for permanent consequences. Almost any conviction related to the use of illegal drugs can result in deportation of a Lawful Permanent Resident. So can a conviction related to sexual conduct by a young adult with a person who is a minor. Many who have lived in the U.S. with their families as Lawful Permanent Residents since they were very young children have been deported after being convicted of crimes they committed as youth or young adults. Becoming a U.S. citizen protects you and your children from deportation.
6. Possible dual citizenship
Some individuals are hesitant to become U.S. citizens because they fear losing their other national citizenship. It is true that some countries do not allow individuals who naturalize in other countries to remain their citizens. But, many countries do allow dual citizenship. Some, like India, allow a modified form of continued citizenship. Swearing allegiance to the United States in the Oath of Citizenship does not automatically mean that a person cannot be a dual citizen. So, people who are interested in retaining their citizenship from their country of origin should contact that consulate or embassy to find out that country's law.
7. Retention of retirement income and ability to travel to the U.S.
Some people are planning to retire in their home country or another country. So, they feel like it isn't necessary or appropriate to become a U.S. citizen. However, if you retire abroad as a Lawful Permanent Resident, you might face several practical problems. In some countries that don't have special agreements with the United States, Lawful Permanent Residents who live abroad may not be able to collect their Social Security retirement payments that they earned by paying in to the system. Also, Lawful Permanent Residents who actually reside outside the United States might be considered to have "abandoned" their residence and they can lose their Lawful Permanent Resident status and ability to enter the United States without a visitor visa. There is no requirement that U.S. citizens spend any particular amount of time in the United States. If you want to retire abroad but still be sure you can collect your retirement check and visit your grandchildren, you should consider naturalization.
8. Ability to hold certain government jobs
Some government jobs can only be held by U.S. citizens. Generally, that includes naturalized citizens, not just people who were citizens at birth.
Maybe you have given up on the dream of U.S. citizenship because you struggle with English or have other challenges relating to learning and preparing for the civics test. You should know that some people are eligible to take the test with an interpreter. People who have been Lawful Permanent Residents for at least 15 years and are at least 55 years old or people who have been Lawful Permanent Residents for at least 20 years and are at least 50 years are older may use an interpreter. There is also a simpler version of the test for people who have been Lawful Permanent Residents for 20 years and are 65 or older. Finally, a waiver of the English language and civics test requirements is available for people who are unable to fulfill them because of physical or developmental disability or mental impairment. Your regular doctor can complete the waiver form (Form N-648) -- it does not have to be completed by someone with any special authorization from immigration authorities.
Susan E. Reed is supervising attorney of Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, which is part of the Detroit New Americans Campaign, a group of organizations that provides free workshops to help eligible Legal Permanent Residents apply for U.S. citizenship.
For more information about free citizenship workshops in Metro Detroit, go to: DetroitNAC.org. The next free citizenship workshops in Metro Detroit are March 8 in Sterling Heights and March 22 in Madison Heights.
For information about free citizenship workshops in other cities, go to: NewAmericansCampaign.org.
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