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Citizens, Nationals, and Immigrants in the United States

USGC [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsThe current election season has seen a great deal of rhetoric regarding immigration, citizenship, and what it means to be an American. Most of the recent discussion has centered on questions like how many immigrants to admit to the country, and how to deal with undocumented entry. As the arguments grow heated, it is worth taking a step back and looking at how this country’s laws define terms like “citizen,” and how “we the people” fit together as a nation.

Federal law does not have one, distinct definition of a “citizen” of the United States. Rather, it is a collection of rights and obligations obtained by birth or by naturalization. U.S. Const. Amdt. XIV, § 1. “Birthright citizenship” refers to the principle that anyone born within the United States is automatically a citizen. A U.S. citizen is generally considered a citizen of both the United States as a whole and the state in which they reside. The rights of citizenship include travel to and from the U.S., consular services while abroad, and voting in local, state, and national elections. Obligations include payment of taxes and service on juries.

For the purposes of U.S. immigration law, a “state” includes the fifty U.S. states (i.e. Alabama through Wyoming), the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territories of Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(36). Anyone born within these geographic areas, as well as other areas during a time when they were territorial holdings of the U.S., is deemed to have birthright citizenship. 8 U.S.C. §§ 1401-07. Children born to U.S. citizens outside of the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S. are generally also considered birthright citizens, or may obtain that status. 8 U.S.C. §§ 1431, 1433.

Naturalization is the process of conferring U.S. citizenship on someone, pursuant to the authority granted to Congress by the Constitution. U.S. Const. Art. I, § 8, cl. 4; 8 U.S.C. § 1421 et seq. In order to become a naturalized citizen, a person must have been a lawful permanent resident (LPR) for at least five years, or three years if they obtained LPR status through marriage to a U.S. citizen. They must be able, in most cases, to speak and understand the English language, and they must pass a citizenship test. They must also meet certain standards for “good moral character.” See 8 U.S.C. § 1427.

Some people born on U.S. territory are considered “nationals” of this country, but not citizens. A “national” is defined as someone who “owes permanent allegiance” to a country. 8 U.S.C. §§ 1101(a)(21), (22). People born in “an outlying possession of the United States,” for example, are considered U.S. nationals by birth, but not citizens. 8 U.S.C. § 1408(1). Currently, the only territories considered outlying possessions are American Samoa, with a population of about 54,000, and Swains Island, which is home to about seventeen people. 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(29).

Immigration attorney Samuel C. Berger represents immigrants living in the New York City and Northern New Jersey region, individuals seeking to immigrate to the United States, and families and employers petitioning on behalf of a prospective immigrant. Please contact us online, at (201) 587-1500, or at (212) 380-8117 today to schedule a confidential consultation with an experienced and skilled immigration advocate.

More Blog Posts:

United States Citizenship, Part 2: Lawsuit Looks at Meaning of “Citizenship” for People Born in One U.S. Territory, New York & New Jersey Immigration Lawyer Blog, March 25, 2015

United States Citizenship, Part 1: More Complicated than It Appears, New York & New Jersey Immigration Lawyer Blog, March 11, 2015

After More than Two Decades in New York City, Man Finally Becomes Naturalized U.S. Citizen, New York & New Jersey Immigration Lawyer Blog, November 26, 2014

Photo credit: USGC [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.