Does a Foreign Citizen Who Marries a U.S. Citizen Automatically Become a U.S. Citizen?

Does a Foreign Citizen Who Marries a U.S. Citizen Automatically Become a U.S. Citizen?
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Last updated: December 2010

The following questions were submitted to John Roska, an attorney/writer whose weekly newspaper column, "Q&A: The Law," runs in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Illinois Edition) and the Champaign News Gazette. This article was published on December 08, 2010.

Question:

Does a foreign citizen who marries a U.S. citizen automatically become a U.S. citizen? I’m planning to marry someone who is here legally, but is not a U.S. citizen. I’ve heard that the marriage will automatically make my spouse a U.S. citizen, but I want to be sure.

Answer:

No. Marriage to a U.S. citizen does not automatically turn a non-citizen into a U.S. citizen. It may make it easier and faster for them to become a U.S. citizen, but it’s not automatic.

The Fourteenth Amendment bestows US citizenship two ways: birth on U.S. soil, and naturalization of immigrants. Only natural-born U.S. citizenship is “automatic,” in the sense that you don’t have to do anything, besides producing a birth certificate that shows you were born here.

Naturalization is never automatic. Most generally, it requires 5 years continuous residence in the U.S., a knowledge of English and civics, “good moral character,” and “an attachment to the U.S. Constitution.” Because it’s the result of complicated layers of federal laws and regulations, the naturalization process involves lots of paper work, and hefty fees.

Marriage to a U.S. citizen can smooth a non-citizen’s path to a “Green Card,” and reduce the residency requirement to 3 years. Assuming that the non-citizen is legally in the U.S. in the first place, and that the marriage is legit, the naturalization process still involves many forms, supporting documents, medical exams, interviews, and at least $1,365 in fees.

Once married, the U.S. citizen can file a “Petition for Alien Relative.” That’s the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Form I-485, and officially establishes your legal relationship with the non-citizen.

At the same time, the non-citizen spouse of a U.S. citizen can file an “Application to Adjust Permanent Residence or Adjust Status” (I-485). Unlike most other relatives of U.S. citizens, non-citizen spouses don’t have wait for their application to be processed. By jumping the line most immigrants have to wait in, they’re immediately on their way toward getting a Green Card (I-551).

The Green Card—as of May 2010 it’s once again green—establishes that someone is a “lawful permanent resident.” It proves that they’re here legally, and can stay here permanently. It also authorizes them to work here.

A spouse’s Green Card has 2 stages. First, there’s a “conditional permanent status.” (One of the conditions is really being married.) After 2 years, your spouse can file a Petition to Remove Conditions (I-751).

When your spouse has had a Green Card for at least 3 years, they can complete the naturalization process and become a U.S. citizen. Along the way, there’s medical exams, and interviews to prove you’re really married.

The USCIS comes down hard on marriages that are just for immigration purposes. Although the inspiration for romantic comedies (e.g., Green Card, The Proposal), “sham marriages” can also result in fines up to $250,000 and 5 years in federal prison. Non-citizen spouses seem to get charged most frequently—a Mexican starlet’s recent trial in LA ended in a hung jury—but citizen spouses get prosecuted, too.
 

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