Over the years, I have consulted with and represented several individuals who were unaware of the fact that they were United States Citizens. Some clients believed themselves to be Lawful Permanent Residents (“Green Card” holders); others were in the United States on various visas; some had been trying to obtain visas to the United States; while others thought themselves to be undocumented immigrants. It is not often that people find themselves questioning, “Am I a Citizen?” but perhaps it is a question that should be considered more often, especially in light of the very complex system of immigration and naturalization laws in the United States.
Under U.S. Immigration law, a person can become a citizen through naturalization, acquisition, or derivation. This article will explore citizenship through acquisition or derivation, as with both, an individual automatically becomes a citizen through an act rather than through an application process.
An individual who becomes a citizen through acquisition effectively becomes a citizen at birth. This may occur in different ways. One well-known example of acquired citizenship is known as “birthright citizenship,” where under the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, anyone born in the United States is automatically a U.S. Citizen.
Another way one can acquire citizenship is through one or both parents being U.S. Citizens at the time of the child’s birth. This means, that a child may be born in a foreign country, but may actually be a U.S. Citizen based on the citizenship of that child’s parent(s). Determining whether an individual acquired citizenship at birth through the citizenship of his/her parents is more complicated and requires considerable investigation into several factors. The first factor to the analysis is determining when the child was born and looking at the immigration laws at that time. Since immigration laws have changed over the years, different standards apply depending on when the child was born. Another important factor has to do with whether the child was born from a marriage or out of wedlock. In some cases, out of wedlock children need to be “legitimated” in order to be eligible for this benefit. Further, depending on the year in which the child was born, the citizenship and immigration status of one or both parents may be relevant. Additionally, again, depending on the year that the child was born, the residency in the United States of one or both parents and the parent’s age at the time of residency may also be important to the analysis. Therefore, due to the complexity of this analysis, if an individual was born abroad to one or more U.S. Citizen parents, there is a chance that s/he is in fact a U.S. Citizen.
Unlike acquired citizenship, derived citizenship does not ensue at the birth of the child; rather, it occurs through the naturalization of one or both parents of a Lawful Permanent Resident child. Derivative citizenship also looks at the laws on the date the parent(s) naturalized. Similar to acquired citizenship, derivative citizenship may have specific requirements relating to legitimization of children born out of wedlock. Additionally, derivative citizenship requires a determination of who is a “child.” Depending on the year the parent(s) naturalized, a child might be one who is under the age of 18, while other years one need only be under the age of 21 to be considered a “child.” In some years, under certain circumstances, adopted children might be able to derive citizenship, while other years and under other circumstances, they might not. Under no circumstances can stepchildren derive or acquire citizenship through their stepparents. Again, this can be a complicated legal analysis, but in instances where one or both parents of a Lawful Permanent Resident child naturalized, that child may have become a U.S. Citizen under the law. In such a situation, it is worth obtaining legal counsel to analyze the circumstances and advise on whether the child became a citizen.
If a child acquires citizenship at birth or derives citizenship through the naturalization of that child’s parent(s), the child is then automatically a U.S. Citizen and entitled to all the rights and benefits of any other U.S. Citizen. That individual cannot be deported and should be able to freely travel to the United States. The individual may be able to petition for foreign relatives and, if eligible, should be entitled to various federal and state benefits. Further, upon turning 18, the individual has the right to vote in local, state, and federal elections. To prove a person’s citizenship under these circumstances the individual can apply for a U.S. Passport and/or a Certificate of Citizenship (Form N-600). Obtaining these documents does not make the person a citizen; the person is a citizen under the law, the documents merely provide the documentary proof of his/her citizenship. There is no expiration on acquired or derivative citizenship.
While one acquires citizenship at birth or derives citizenship as a child, one may not find out that s/he is a citizen until reaching adulthood. Discovering that one is a U.S. Citizen can change the life of that individual and his/her entire family. It could even result in a discovery that other family members are also U.S. Citizens. For example, a person could discover that his/her grandparent(s) were U.S. Citizens and as a result his/her parent(s) may have been U.S. Citizens, and as a result that individual might, in fact, be a U.S. Citizen. Thus, the discovery of citizenship may equate to a discovery that generations of relatives have claim to U.S. Citizenship.
There are likely countless individuals around the world who may, in fact, be U.S. Citizens through the citizenship of their ancestors and not even know it. These individuals may be unaware that they are entitled to enjoy all the rights and privileges of U.S. Citizenship. If a person has reason to suspect that s/he may have acquired or derived citizenship, or know someone who may have acquired or derived citizenship, that individual should seek legal counsel from an immigration attorney to analyze the facts surrounding his/her case and advise of the possibility of U.S. Citizenship and the impact such status may have on the rest of the individual’s family.