Although most people are familiar with the concept of citizenship, few are aware of the many details that the process entails. Long before a person can become a naturalized citizen of the United States, they must complete a number of objectives and mandates required by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). These requirements can be altered based on federal policies, as the USCIS is an agency of the Department of Homeland Security. But it is essentially a six-step process that usually takes 8–10 months. These steps are explained below.
After personally assessing their own eligibility for citizenship, individuals wishing to become citizens must complete Form N-400, Application for Naturalization. This is a document that takes note of an applicant’s personal information, residence and travel history during the past five years, employment and education, and marital/family history. In addition to the form itself, the application requires two passport-style photos and additional documentation to prove eligibility for naturalization. This information is outlined in the “Document Checklist, Current Fees, Naturalization Eligibility Worksheet” pdf that is listed on the N-400 website at https://www.uscis.gov/n-400.
After submitting the N-400 and required documents, applicants are scheduled for a biometrics appointment. Although individuals over the age of 75 are exempt from this task, everyone else must be fingerprinted and undergo criminal background checks. Only after the completion of this step will USCIS schedule the interview. The interview determines a person’s eligibility for citizenship by questioning them on the contents of their N-400 application and their personal background. During this time, applicants will also take the English and Civics tests. The former is comprised of one reading and one writing task, and the applicant’s proficiency in spoken English is assessed throughout the interview. For the Civics test, the USCIS officer selects 10 questions to ask at random from a predetermined list of 100. The applicant must answer 6 correctly to move on to the next step of the naturalization process. It is highly encouraged that applicants study for both tests ahead of their interview, and BRL offers Citizenship Preparation classes that helps applicants prepare. The course provides practice for the reading and writing portions of the English test as well as cultural lessons that contextualize the questions on the Civics test. Additionally, students in the class learn about the interview process and may schedule a mock interview at BRL once they receive their interview date from USCIS. Citizenship classes meet once a week and are offered on Mondays from 5:30–7:30pm and Fridays from 11:00–1:00pm.
If all goes well during the interview, applicants are notified that their N-400 has been granted, establishing that they are eligible for citizenship. After this, they are given a date to take the Oath of Allegiance to the United States. This oath renounces all prior loyalties to other countries and declares that the individual will support the Constitution and defend the U.S. when required by law. Only after applicants take this oath can they legally claim citizenship. Then, new citizens receive their Certificate of Naturalization.
While this process can be arduous and lengthy, the end result is heartening. Last week, I got the chance to attend a naturalization ceremony held at the Poff building in Downtown Roanoke. BRL’s Program Director, Sara Geres, brought me to along to watch as Son, a learner here at BRL, became a citizen. Also in attendance was Ellen, Son’s longtime tutor that BRL matched her up with. The ceremony began at 11 o’clock sharp with the presentation of colors and a rendition of the National Anthem by Carilion Clinic’s Hospice Threshold Choir. After words from officials in attendance, the future citizens took the Oath of Allegiance. They then received their Certificate of Naturalization from Judge Elizabeth Dillon. Following this, Judge Dillon invited any willing new citizen to say a few words about their feelings toward becoming a citizen. Several people stood up to share their stories, explaining what brought them to the country, thanking their families for being with them, and expressing what citizenship meant to them. The choir was brought back afterwards to sing “America the Beautiful,” and listening to the lyrics, I started to think about being an American. As someone who was born into their U.S. citizenship, I’d never considered its significance beyond the scope of legal forms and applications. But seeing the joy and gratitude in the faces of the country’s newest citizens made me realize my own privilege in having it come so easily to me. It was something I took for granted, but attending the ceremony and learning about the steps required to become naturalized made me think about how much citizenship means.
Witnessing the long process of naturalization culminate in what court officials call the “happiest day at court” was an incredible and humbling experience. Congratulations to Son on becoming a U.S. citizen and to everyone else on the road to naturalization!