How to become a United States citizen

Apologies for the length of this post. It’s an eight-year long story. However, that’s short and simple compared to the same story from the refugees and people from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. With all the rhetoric and allegations about the negative impacts of immigration, comes a lot of intentional misinformation. I wanted to share this, my story, to explain the process to become a United States citizen, and why the claims of letting dangerous people in is wrong.

If you listen to the President, all you need to do to become a United States citizen is to offer. That’s how we get all the bad people and the terrorist attacks (which anyway are negligible compared to gun deaths, especially gun deaths of children). If it was so easy, why do we have so many undocumented immigrants who work their butts off, get exploited and live in fear? It sounds like a terrible choice and one they say is better than their original countries.

So how do you become a United States citizen?

The short version: become a permanent resident, wait a while, then apply to be a citizen. While it’s technically true, simplifying it this much just supports the President’s ideas. There’s a lot of security checks, and monitoring, and money, and what feels like half a forest of paperwork. The first stage, permanent residency, can be done in a few different ways. I suspect my way was one of the easiest, even if it wasn’t guaranteed. It did come down to partially luck, with a lot of privilege. Yep, I’ve acknowledged it. Privilege.

Start with a Green Card

I won my chance at a Green Card. Around October-November 2008 I got bored and filled out a form online. It asked my name, address, names of dependents, did I finish high school, etc, and asked me to upload a photo of myself. I recall it taking a little longer because it didn’t like my first photo, so I had to re-do that part. It was pretty quick though, maybe 15 minutes. I had expressed an interest in a Diversity Visa.

That’s all there was for that stage. The Diversity Visa is kind of rare (up to 55,000 issued per year versus 480,000+ for family visas) and a lot of people apply. There were 13.9 million other people who did the same as I did in 2008. There’s a minute chance of being selected (literally having your number drawn), so I didn’t think anything of it and went on with my life. Moving to the United States was never my ambition. I was halfway through grad school and working a job I didn’t really like, so it was a big case of “why not?”. Plus, I never thought I’d be selected.

Fast forward to May 1, 2009. It was the first day USCIS sent notifications to the selected applicants. It has since become an email notification but then it was all paper. While I was conscious of the date I wasn’t really thinking about it. Mail from the US to Australia takes a week or two.

Straight from work, I joined some friends for dinner. While they went on to see a movie, I walked home. In the middle of the coffee table was a large envelope from Homeland Security. I had been selected. All the emotions kicked in, and I really hope Kathleen and Keira muted their phones for the movie because I sent excited texts full of expletives. A lot of expletives.

My ceremony was after the 2016 election but before the inauguration.

This is where the security and monitoring started and continued for about eight years. The relatively short application form asked my history for the previous five years. Addresses, employers, etc. It asked family history and wanted US standard passport photos – they’re larger than Australian ones. It took a few days to get everything together. Plus, five years of history. I tend to be rather transient so recreating move dates was work. Over the last weekend, this increased to 15 years, with also all social media accounts. Five years was hard enough, oh and the President still wants the travel ban, even though it was only meant to be “until they knew what was going on”. Right! I sent the forms registered mail to the processing center in the United States. This still wasn’t permanent residency, just the application to apply. Anything could still go wrong so very few people knew what was happening.

Here there was more waiting. I scoured forums to learn what was going on in the processing. USCIS was running an FBI name check on me and a few other security checks. I think I was asked previous travel to the US, so that would have been verified as well. I checked previous years’ schedules to guess when my interview would be scheduled. From the 100,000 selected only 55,000 visas were available. Add in those taking dependents, the numbers can be tight. Of course, some people drop out at this stage. They may have entered on a whim, or reality set in. There’s no financial support for immigration, so it’s a costly process. Also, some applicants are from countries with less established governments so proving they completed high school (a minimum requirement), or even just birth certificates can be impossible. That’s where privilege definitely made it easier for me.

The Green Card Interview

In November I was given my interview date: January 4, 2010. The notice arrived with another long form and a list of paperwork requests. I needed a police report from each state I had lived in the previous five years (luckily it was just one), a medical exam from the only US-accredited doctor in the state. At least I had a doctor in Melbourne, even if he did decide I had breast lumps and wouldn’t release the clearance until I’d been cleared by an imaging specialist. I also had to provide evidence of my education and proof of financial security. Remember, no financial assistance. That extends after you arrive. I had to prove I could support myself.

Time for the interview arrived. I flew to Sydney to the consulate-general (more expense). Only the applicant could enter the consulate. My ID was checked on arrival, and I walked through a metal detector. I could only take the huge wad of paperwork with me. My phone, handbag, etc was all left with security on a different floor.

The interview itself was fairly basic with more waiting than interviewing. After speaking to a few different people (with lots of waiting in between), my application was approved. I paid $560 and they said they’d mail my passport to me in a few days. It didn’t feel real until I had my passport in hand with the really pretty visa in it a few days later.

I told a few people at this stage, but it was still fairly hushed. People knew I was going to the US but assumed vacation. Even the two days in Sydney was just “a trip”. Kathleen came with me and we told people we were going to Sydney to get Ben and Jerry’s. The only Australian store was in Manly.

Technically permanent residency didn’t start until I arrived in the US. On arrival (after the longest day with four countries because I thought a day in Singapore would be fun), I landed in San Francisco. Once I collected my bags and made it to the front of the immigration line, I was shuffled off to another line. More waiting. Eventually, my paperwork and visa were confirmed with a stamp. They took my photo and thumbprints. Oh, I forgot to mention my fingerprints were taken previously, and by the Victorian Police. I was then officially a United States permanent resident, aka, a Green Card holder.

They explained the rules to me. I had to carry my yellow Green Card on me at all times. I had to submit my taxes on time, not vote or impersonate a US citizen, and comply with a longer list of demands or I could be deported. So I agreed not to engage in prostitution or to bring down the government, and to register my address with USCIS, and I was free to go.

This time wasn’t the easiest. As a non-citizen, I was expected to comply with all the tax requirements of a citizen but ineligible for the benefits. There was no job assistance, or help finding a home. Again privilege helped: white, English-speaking, and highly educated. Even then, I spent the first six months volunteering more than working. In June after my first shift working at Bubba Gump Shrimp and catching the bus home at 2am, I broke down. It was enough. So I took the last of my savings and moved to Seattle.

The next few years was a scramble to rebuild my career, and dutifully report my address to USCIS. Oh and pay my taxes on time. In January 2015 I was eligible to apply for citizenship. The fee is only $680, but after living the American dream and taking a chance on my own business, I didn’t have that to spare. Also, there are mixed reports on unemployment eligibility, but more reports said I’d be denied citizenship as a public charge if I took it. It was another year before my application was submitted. All this time I was diligently behaving and the US government was silently monitoring me. To be fair, I did exploit this. Washington state legalized marijuana use, but the federal government didn’t. I have no desire to consume so my out was that I was under federal restrictions.

The United States Citizenship Process

The application was an even bigger wad of paperwork. The form was 21 pages, plus additions to include my last five years of addresses and employers. Sometimes I envy those who don’t take chances. I also had to list each trip outside of the US in those previous five years. I spend a lot of time in Canada, so I had to list all those trips. That was another page. My spreadsheet tracking them had been lost, and I always traveled on my Green Card or NEXUS so I had to apply to get most of the dates.

After the form was submitted I was called to the USCIS office for a biometrics screening. A photo was taken, and my fingerprints recorded – again. This was sent to the FBI for another name check. Over the next few months, I was told there were other background checks going on, but no-one would tell me who they were with. Approximately eight weeks later my citizenship interview was scheduled and descheduled (their word) on the same day. Despite many visits and phone calls I never found out why. I was given several excuses, including that the extra, unnamed, background checks were not complete.

After my application had been in for nine months it hit the “exceptional circumstances” category and I was able to escalate it. My interview was quickly rescheduled. It was tempting to give up at this point. Donald Trump was gaining support, and Seattle was starting to feel old. Plus, if they took this long, does the United States want me? This was another stage where my education helped. I was able to scour and find forums reporting other experiences. I knew to check the website and call and visit.

My Citizenship Interview

For the interview I went through security screening, ID checked, and lots of questions. I verbally confirmed I wasn’t part of the Nazi party in 1945 (actually question), and provided evidence of my tax adherence. If I had any traffic infringements or criminal proceedings I would have needed evidence of those. Providing the evidence was just a rouse. They had already checked all this information. The interviewer apologized for asking me to do the English test. I felt the privilege.

She approved me for citizenship and checked I was available for a ceremony that afternoon. I was given another form with security declarations for the afternoon. Did I get married or engage in a polygamous marriage between the interview and the ceremony? Did I become a habitual drunkard?

Arriving at the ceremony meant more metal detectors and x-rays of my belongings. My ID was checked and my Green Card was taken. The signed security declaration was taken. The ceremony itself is for another blog post, another time. At the end of the ceremony, the security alert on my name was lifted. Nearly eight years after it was placed.

A post-ceremony flag celebration – in the parking lot.

Now a United States Citizen

Again, I admit got it easy. I didn’t start in a war zone, with only the clothes I was in. I had the money to pay for the flights and visas and medical checks. Being selected in the Green Card lottery meant I didn’t need to know the exact words required for refugee status. Being born in Australia meant I didn’t have the literal lifetime wait for a Green Card that those born in the Philippines and Mexico have.

It was still a lot of work and patience, and even more time to become a United States citizen. To the President and those convinced immigration beings terror attacks, my experience was arduous. Those from Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen have more background checks already. If they were coming to the United States to commit acts of terror there are easier ways to do it.

If you have any questions about the process, I’m happy to answer them. Remember though I’m not a lawyer and can only answer how it applies to my experience becoming a United States citizen.

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More about Bianca

Bianca's a nerdy, book worm who is constantly curious and appreciates being alive while the internet exists. During the day, she's a content writer for a huge multinational tech company. The rest of the time she's reading, and running, and bike riding, and sipping coffee, and taking photos around Melbourne, Australia.

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