Becoming American: Understanding legal and Illegal Immigration

Becoming American: Understanding legal and Illegal Immigration

by LegalZoom Staff, December 2009

The United States is one hot destination. Whether the lure is Hollywood, the Statue of Liberty or the world's highest standard of living, people pour over American borders every day, searching for a better life. To do either, every one of these people is legally required to have a visa, issued by the United States Department of State. If someone comes to the United States without a visa, or stays after his or her visa is expired, that person is breaking the law.

Visas issued

Two types of visas are issued by the U.S. government - immigrant and non-immigrant. Those holding immigrant visas usually go on to become resident aliens or legal permanent residents, and obtain their green cards. Most immigrants eventually become citizens of the United States. Non-immigrant visas are issued to people who return to their homeland when their trip or schooling is completed, such as tourists or students.

What is an illegal alien?

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 defines an alien as a person who is not a citizen or national of the United States. In other words, an alien is anyone born in a country other than the United States to parents who are not United States citizens.

An illegal alien is someone who is living in the United States illegally; either without the correct legal documentation or by violating the terms of documentation, such as overstaying the time period specified on a tourist or student visa. Illegal aliens have no legal status in the United States. Among other things, illegal immigrants cannot vote, receive social services from federally funded programs, social security benefits, or hold United States passports.

Illegal aliens are subject to detainment and deportation at any time, as are legal aliens if they commit and are convicted of a crime. In many cases however, unless an illegal alien has committed a crime and been convicted, most are not detained or removed from the U.S. simply because they cannot be identified as illegal aliens.

Becoming a naturalized citizen

The process of becoming a United States citizen with full citizenship rights is called naturalization. Overseen by the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Service (BCIS), there are several ways for aliens to become naturalized. The most common way, used by individuals who hold an immigrant visa, is to obtain legal permanent resident status by residing in the country for a period of five years. During this time, a legal alien may not spend more than six months at once overseas. He or she must be physically present in the country for at least six months of the year for a total minimum of two and a half years.

It is possible to become a permanent legal resident and later, a naturalized citizen through marriage to a United States citizen. In this case, the naturalization period is shortened from five years to three years, provided the couple has been married for at least three years and the spouse is still a citizen of the United States.

Other factors that affect naturalization and eligibility for citizenship include being at least 18 years old, possessing good moral character and basic reading and writing skills. Potential citizens are required to understand United States government and history, although there are some age-related exceptions to the latter two.

After the application and interview process is completed, the BCIS will grant or deny citizenship to the individual who has applied. If the BCIS needs more information before a decision can be made, it will continue the case. Individuals who have been denied citizenship may appeal.

This country was built on the strength of its immigrant population. While the face of the American immigrant has changed and will change over the years, one thing remains the same: you can enter just as long as you have the correct paperwork and can follow the State Department's rules.

If you are an immigrant who would like to renew a green card, obtain a green card, apply for U.S. citizenship, or apply for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), LegalZoom can connect with you an agency that can help you through the process for an affordable price.