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Electing to Naturalize: The Importance of Planning Ahead

Nov 5, 2013
Megan Sahar Turngren

On Election Day, it can seem like a burden to wake up early and stand in line at your local polling place, but the ability to vote is a prized benefit of citizenship and an important step in the journey to full integration in the United States.  The benefits of citizenship are numerous and the CLINIC network has long advocated naturalization for all eligible permanent residents.

Particularly, in CLINIC’s Religious Immigration Section (RIS), we echo this sentiment and strongly encourage religious workers to pursue naturalization. While you may be aware of the many resources to help immigrants learn U.S. history, understand government structure, and become proficient in English, you may be less familiar with information regarding your status and more complex aspects of the naturalization process. 

Before someone can pursue naturalization, they must be a permanent resident for five years. In RIS, many of our clients contact us to begin the naturalization process as soon as they reach the five-year mark. However, the five-year mark is just one of the requirements that must be met to become a citizen.

One of the most important—and yet often overlooked—requirements is called “continuous presence.” Applicants must have resided continuously in the United States for at least five years after receiving permanent resident status.   ”Continuous residence” is problematic for many of our clients who often travel abroad for extended periods for missionary work. If applicants spend too much time abroad during a trip, they may not meet the qualifications for continuous presence.  Fortunately, the use of a reentry permit to reenter the U.S. after an extended period outside of the United States does not affect the requirement for continuous presence. Permanent residents are automatically presumed to break the continuity of residence if they are absent from the U.S. for six months or more, however.

In certain circumstances, there may be the option to apply for relief from the continuous residence requirement. To qualify for this relief, individuals must have resided inside the United States for one continuous year at some point after obtaining Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR) status. Also, employers would need to be able to provide a detailed explanation of the reasons for the multiple extended trips abroad (in the case of priests, nuns, and religious workers, religious organizations would provide this verification).

Additionally, individuals must reside in one location for at least three months prior to the filing date of the application. For our clients, who often travel around the United States in service to the Church, advanced planning may be required to satisfy this requirement. Once the application is filed, LPRs should plan to remain inside the U.S. until the naturalization process is complete. Even with a valid reentry permit and permanent resident card, a foreign national should think twice about taking any trips abroad during this time.

Furthermore, permanent residents must also be able to show that they have physical presence for at least 30 months of the five years immediately preceding the filing of the naturalization application. Please keep in mind that the requirements for physical presence and conditional residence are similar but not the same.

The naturalization process can seem cumbersome for lawful permanent residents but understanding the requirements and legal resources available to you are important in navigating your road to citizenship and the privileges it provides.

For more on the services offered by CLINIC’s Religious Immigration Section, the naturalization process, and our network of nation-wide charitable legal service providers, explore CLINIC’s website.

*Megan Sahar Turngren is a Staff Attorney in CLINIC's Religious Immigration Section