Legal Permanent Residence vs. U.S. Citizenship


“How can I get a green card?” This question, or something similar, is generally the first question I get when meeting individuals regarding immigration matters. The question comes from people with no status, whether they entered illegally or fell out of status at some point, as well as individuals with some type of temporary status. I have also met with people who have a green card and have encountered challenges that place them at risk of losing their permanent resident status.

This leads me to two questions, which are too infrequently addressed: “Once I have a green card, how do I keep it?” and “How long should I wait before I apply for citizenship?”

The “Green Card” is the common name for the card which is provided as evidence of Legal Permanent Resident (LPR) status. But, both names are deceiving – the ‘green card’ is no longer green (it was many years ago!) and being a permanent resident does not necessarily mean that you can stay in the U.S. permanently and indefinitely. Permanent residence has restrictions and is a privilege that can be taken away under certain circumstances.

LPR status provides admission as an immigrant. It can also open up eligibility to certain government benefits. LPR status does not, however, provide citizenship. LPRs must continue to update their current address with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS). This is critical because if any question arises regarding your LPR status, USCIS will contact you at the address they have on record. If your address is not current, you could lose the opportunity to defend any charges brought against you that could result in the loss of LPR status, simply because you were not aware they existed.

LPRs are subject to the grounds of deportability. This means that an LPR can be deported if they violate certain immigration laws. One of the most common ways that individuals can lose LPR status is through the commission of certain crimes, such as those considered to be aggravated felonies. Some of these crimes may seem relatively minor under state law, but can be devastating under immigration laws. As criminal charges can be brought against individuals in a variety of circumstances, everyone is susceptible. It is also possible to abandon your LPR status unintentionally by not maintaining sufficient ties to the U.S. Abandonment can be found particularly if you spend substantial time abroad, and even if you travel often to the U.S. It is critical to consult with an immigration attorney on the ways you can maintain LPR status in these circumstances.

LPRs may apply for Naturalization to U.S. Citizenship after five (5) years in LPR status, or three (3) years, if married to a U.S. Citizen. U.S. Citizenship brings with it practically all the constitutional rights and privileges of natural born citizens, including the right to vote in elections. Naturalized citizens may obtain a U.S. Passport and do not need a separate visa or card for travel or work purposes. Citizens do not have to be concerned with abandoning their status, for example, if foreign travel and spending time abroad are important to you. Moreover, U.S. Citizens can seek certain types of assistance through U.S. Consulates and Embassies abroad, when necessary.

Then undesired loss of U.S. Citizenship is a lot more difficult and occurs much less frequently. Some common reasons are actually linked to events while an individual is in LPR status – such as crimes committed as an LPR that were not disclosed at the time of naturalization or other material misrepresentation committed to gain citizenship.

So, the best piece of advice is to do your best to protect your LPR status and apply to become a U.S. Citizen as soon as possible for you. Some people have personal reasons for not taking that step. Others may have language barriers that prevent naturalization early on in their residency. Whatever your reason, I hope this information helps to enlighten you on the risks, how to protect your LPR status, and will help inform your decision about seeking U.S. Citizenship.

Tamar Jones, Esq. is a Richmond immigration attorney at Fayad Law, P.C. If you would like to learn more about obtaining a green card or becoming a U.S. citizen, contact the firm today.

Disclaimer: Every legal matter is different. The outcome of each legal case depends upon many factors, including the facts of the case, and no attorney can guarantee a positive result in any particular case. Any testimonial or endorsement does not constitute a guarantee, warranty, or prediction regarding the outcome of your legal matter. Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.