As an immigrant to the United States, I am all too familiar with the feeling of helplessness that surrounds a language barrier. If I had a dime for every time I asked someone to repeat their words more simply and slowly, I’m confident I could live in luxury for the rest of my life. Unfortunately, life isn’t that easy — in order to fully thrive in American society, command of English is crucial. I had the good fortune of coming to the States when I was very young, so learning a new language wasn’t as formidable a task as it is for older immigrants, like my parents. My skills certainly helped me a lot with the English language requirement of the naturalization exams. But people who simply do not have the time or energy to learn the English language do not need to despair  — the United States has created a system that permits specific immigrants to obtain citizenship without being good at English.

According to USCIS, an applicant is “exempt from the English language requirement but is still required to meet the civics requirement” if they fit under two categories:

  1. The applicant is age 50 or older at the time of filing for naturalization and has lived as a lawful permanent resident (LPR, or alternatively ‘green card holder’) in the U.S. for at least 20 years, or
  2. The applicant is age 55 or older at the time of filing for naturalization and has lived as an LPR in the U.S. for at least 15 years.

These rules are commonly referred to as the 50/20 and 55/15 exceptions. Both these categories still require the civics test, but applicants who qualify for English exemption can take the civics test in their language of choice with an interpreter. For more information about these exemptions, check out this link.   

But what if you want to attempt the English test? USCIS requires naturalization applicants to demonstrate an ability to read, write, speak, and understand words in “ordinary usage.” Ordinary usage means comprehensible communication through simple vocabulary and grammar, which may include “errors in pronouncing, constructing, spelling, and understanding completely certain words, phrases, and sentences.” Yes, you read that right — USCIS claims that an applicant can make “some errors in pronunciation, spelling, and grammar and still meet the English requirement for naturalization.” However, don’t rely on this leniency! If you choose to take the English test, make sure to prepare in advance and keep track of any mistakes during the exam. There is a variety of courses tailored for immigrants trying to study English, such as “English Innovations,” “CAL Solutions,” and “Carlos Rosario International School” and much more.

There is one more facet of the English test that someone may not know. For some people, it might simply be better, regardless of their skills in the English language, to file the N-400 (the Application for Naturalization). We can’t express how many people in the United States suffer unnecessarily because they are afraid of the English tests. You might not think you need citizenship, but naturalization opens up a new world of opportunities to an immigrant. Additionally, legal issues are different to an immigrant — they can face possible deportation for a very light crime (read more about these important issues here). Thus, that is why various immigration lawyers will push you to apply for naturalization if it’s feasible. Also, one tip that many immigrants are unaware of is it’s possible to pass the English test via repetition.

Never give up on your American Dream because of the language barrier. The United States rewards perseverance and commitment.  

Keun Won “Brian” Lee
HMA Legal Intern, Spring 2018

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