Being an immigration lawyer has taught me at least one important lesson: it is far easier to prevent a mess than it is to clean up one.  If you qualify, there is one relatively simple thing you can do that will help prevent many serious problems, and also provide multiple benefits to you.

It’s filing for US citizenship.

Popular wisdom says that the only difference between a green card holder and a citizen is the right to vote. It’s a lot more than that.

As lawyers, we know the immigration system, its pitfalls and its perils. Citizenship fees are an insurance premium for a fantastic policy that keeps you from having to deal with that system. Once you’re a citizen, there are no more worries about time spent outside the US, or filing green card renewals. And the policy comes with other perks, too. You get the right to petition for loved ones – spouses, children, parents, siblings. You get the right to vote, giving you a voice in your community. You qualify for many more forms of government aid. Many government jobs require US citizenship – a major benefit for members of our Washington, DC metropolitan community.  Nowadays, citizenship applications (at least here in the DC area) are being processed in 2 – 3 months.  It’s a good time to file.

But there is another benefit that is frequently overlooked, largely because most people are  not aware of this benefit until it’s too late. If you find yourself charged with a crime, being a citizen means you cannot be placed into removal (deportation) proceedings. The most common thing I hear in response to this is, “I am not a criminal, I have nothing to hide, and this doesn’t apply to me.” Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Many people commit technically criminal acts, which may not even be serious crimes, but for which the immigration consequences are disastrous. Laws are treated differently in immigration. As a federal judge wrote just last week, “While under our law numerous felonies are deemed not…[to cause deportation]…all acts of petty theft automatically qualify for that label and the drastic legal consequences that may follow. As some in today’s society might say, and with good reason, “Go figure.”” Ocegueda-Nunez v. Holder (9th Cir. 2/10/2010).  I have seen the dejected look on many clients’ faces over the years, all of whom were good people who found themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time.

It only matters when it matters, but when it does, it’s a big deal. You may never be charged with a crime. But everything you have worked for rides on your ability to remain in the United States. Protect your life’s work and your family by filing for citizenship. With all the other benefits it comes with, you have very little to lose.

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