Should I hire a naturalization attorney?

I hear this question several times a month, and the answer is rarely simple. While there is a wealth of DIY resources online for applying for citizenship, determining eligibility is not always so easy.

The process of obtaining United States citizenship through naturalization includes, in essence, filing a form and attending an interview.  While that may sound simple, the devil is always in the details.

Although it is possible to naturalize on your own, it isn’t always wise to do so. It very much depends on (a) whether you’re even eligible, (b) how complicated your case is, and (c) how nervous you are.

I. Are You Even Eligible to Naturalize?

It may sound silly to ask this question, because if you’re wondering whether you need to hire an attorney, you probably already know you’re eligible to apply for naturalization, right? Well, it might not be that simple.

Basic eligibility requires

  • a period of time as a permanent resident (usually five years, but some cases require less)
  • proof of “good moral character” during that time, and
  • physical presence in the United States for at least half of that time.

You also have to pass a basic United States civics exam and prove you can write and read English. You could take a practice test or watch a sample interview to get the idea.

While these basic requirements aren’t complex, there is a long list of hidden issues that can create eligibility problems you aren’t aware of. Consider a few examples:

  • if you were outside the U.S. for at least a year, your physical presence clock gets reset. So you might have the right number of days physically present but still be unable to meet this requirement.
  • if you owe back taxes, have claimed to be a non-resident on your taxes, etc. you might not be able to prove “good moral character.”
  • If you have ever cheated on your spouse or failed to support your dependents, you might be ineligible.

These aren’t necessarily crimes, so it’s common to forget that they do have an effect on your naturalization. But make no mistake: USCIS can deny your naturalization for them.

II. Consider if Your Case is Complicated or Risky

If you are sure you are eligible, then you might be able to file your naturalization application on your own. But are there other complicating factors or risks involved?

Just because you’re technically eligible to file doesn’t mean you should. A number of factors must be considered, including:

  • prior arrests
  • prior convictions (misdemeanor or felonies) either in the U.S. or in another country, even if they have been “expunged.”
  • problems in your marriage, cheating, etc.
  • failing to pay your taxes
  • failing to pay court-ordered alimony
  • failing to support your children

Criminal convictions can be a big issue. I met with a man recently who had all the technical requirements to naturalize but also had an old criminal conviction that could in theory trigger deportation proceedings. It isn’t a guarantee that the government would try to deport him if it found out about his conviction. But it’s a risk he needs to consider before he applies for citizenship.

Even if you don’t think you have a conviction, if you have ever been arrested by the police for any reason you should talk to an attorney before filing an N-400. You might think you don’t have a criminal record because a conviction has been expunged or a charge dismissed. But that isn’t always correct.

Sometimes old dismissed criminal charges and expunged convictions can be be dealt with proactively. Some convictions that do not seem that serious or are misdemeanors under state law can have serious immigration consequences. And you might be inclined to not mention them on your naturalization form, but that’s a terrible idea for naturalization and can result in the USCIS concluding you intentionally lied about your history.

Other issues need to be cleaned up first. For example, you can naturalize if you owe back taxes, but you’ll need to have set up a payment plan and faithfully complied with it.

Even if you aren’t risking being deported, if you apply before you’re eligible the government will keep your filing fees, which is a lot of money.

III. Do You Know What to Do?

If you don’t have a criminal background, you’ve maintained a good record of all your immigration/travel/residence documentation, and you are confident filing government forms in the right place, then you could probably apply and go through this process on your own without hiring an attorney. But where do you start?

Most people who can do their own taxes can apply for naturalization. But the process has gotten harder over time.  When I began to practice Immigration law the naturalization form was 10 pages long. Now it’s 22 pages long. And some of the documents USCIS ends up asking for (like official tax transcripts and old conviction records) can be a chore to hunt down.

IV. Bonus Question: Are you already a U.S. Citizen?

Again, this may sound like a silly question, but I’ve met with a number of potential clients who wanted to naturalize, only to find out they are already U.S. citizens.

For example, it is possible to automatically acquire citizenship through your U.S. citizen parents at birth, without even knowing it. Similarly, if you were a permanent resident when you were a child and your parent naturalized, then their naturalization may have automatically transferred citizenship to you. In both cases you might not know you’re already a citizen because the government does a pretty poor job of tracking derivative and acquired citizenship and doesn’t tell people affirmatively.  But in that situation, you will not be allowed to naturalize because you are already a citizen. Thus you lose your filing fee and he time you spent on the application.

So, Should You Hire an Attorney?

If you’re confident that you’re eligible for naturalization, understand how to file, and don’t have any red flag issues, then you should be fine filing on your own.

An attorney could still help streamline the process, file the application properly and completely so it doesn’t get rejected, prepare you for the interview, and attend it with you. That way if you get a rogue officer or have any problems at the interview they are there to help.

What an attorney can’t do: help you break the law or get around eligibility issues. If you’re not eligible, an attorney isn’t going to be able to pull any strings to get around the issue. The government also doesn’t process attorney cases any faster, so hiring an attorney won’t usually get you a faster interview.

For the most part your attorney is there to help you spot issues, counsel you on whether and when to file, and prepare you for what to expect at the interview.