Many people think “getting a green card” and “becoming a citizen” are the same thing. Others use the terms “immigration” and “naturalization” interchangeably. But these words and phrases actually have very different meanings, and each legal status carries with it a different set of rights. Getting a Green Card is not the finish line—only U.S. Citizens can vote, run for public office, apply for federal government jobs, serve in a jury, or get a U.S. passport. Generally, if a person was born abroad and now legally lives in the United States, his/her legal status is probably one of the following:
A non-immigrant alien is a non-U.S. citizen who comes to the U.S. temporarily for a specific purpose. Examples of non-immigrant visas include tourists, students (even those who spend many years in the U.S.), and temporary workers. Most non-immigrants are not eligible to work, though. This legal status does not, by itself, provide a path to U.S. citizenship or even a Green Card.
- Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR).
This is the “Green Card” status. As mentioned earlier in our blog, you can usually permanently immigrate only through family, employment, or the Diversity Visa lottery (there are other narrower categories). LPRs are eligible for a Social Security Number and allowed to work (and pay taxes!), but they are not U.S. citizens. That means they cannot vote, run for office, serve in a jury, or get a U.S. passport… yet.
- Naturalized Citizen.
After a few years as an LPR immigrant (usually three to five), a person may apply to become a U.S. citizen through a process called Naturalization. Under certain narrow circumstances, a non-immigrant can jump straight into the Naturalization stage (e.g. if they served in the U.S. Armed Forces).
The Naturalization process includes a Civics test and an English proficiency test (which can sometimes be waived), as well as filling out a lengthy form full of questions ranging from confusing to just plain bizarre (e.g. “Have you ever been a habitual drunkard?”). Thus, while applying for Naturalization is arguably not as difficult as obtaining legal immigration status in the first place, seeking help from an attorney is highly recommended.
It is important to note that the categories listed above don’t include all persons born abroad currently living in the U.S., such as persons who entered the country illegally and are undocumented; those who came to the U.S. legally with a visa, but have since overstayed and are now here illegally; or people who entered the U.S. as undocumented minors and have since been granted deferred status. The list could go on; the permutations are many. The U.S. truly is a “melting pot”—not only of cultures and nationalities, but also of legal statuses.