I am one of a small number of people who got to swear to uphold the U.S. Constitution as a legal document, and not as part of an oath of allegiance to the United States. I was an officer of the court in a country that is my home, but I was not a citizen. Theoretically, I could have defended a client’s right to vote, even though I had no such right. But I crossed the five year wait line. And applied for citizenship. This post is a live blog of the application process. 98 days from application to oath ceremony. And even though I help many through the process nowadays as a community immigration lawyer, your first time is a fond memory that stays with you… Lets wind the clock back to Day 1…
I’m going to blog the process. I will update this blog entry over the weeks and months ahead, and document what happens. A Russian friend went through it all recently and it took four months from application to oath. Mine is a weird case. I belong to a bunch of associations.. all bar associations. I am a licensed attorney, I spent three of the 5 wait years at a top-tier law school, I ticked no in all the right places, and yes in all the other right places. And I’ve only been out of the country for about 40 days – to help my daughter through a math exam and to see my grown up sons, and a new granddaughter. That’s the background. Not very interesting. What’ll be interesting is the process. The details. I don’t know what to expect. I know what the process looks like on paper, what the forms are like, and I’ve heard war stories. But I don’t know what to expect. That’s what this extended blog post will be about.
Let’s start at the beginning.
1. (last week) I downloaded the N-400 forms (I searched for “USCIS N-400 with Google. That’s the easiest way to get to the right place). I have filled out the forms a number of times at citizenship workshops, but for other people. I had to download the latest version of Acrobat Reader, but that let me read and complete the form on the computer. No red flags that I could see. The only challenge was to track the dates I had been out of the country. Fortunately I had bought air tickets via Orbitz, and the confirmations were still in my email.
I went down to the local photo shop, and the lady who took the two passport photos has one year more to wait before she can apply. We aliens are everywhere :). I wrote a check, made out to the Department of Homeland Security – for $680 – which includes “biometrics” and then sent the forms to the USCIS at Phoenix via Fedex. I included the G-1145 form at the top of the packet – that allows them to notify me by email that they have accepted the package. That was last Wednesday evening. Call it Day 1.
Day 6 (Monday) – with an intervening weekend – I receive the email from a friendly guy called firstname.lastname@example.org. He tells me:
Your case has been accepted and routed to the USCIS National Benefits Center for processing. Within 7-10 days by standard mail you will receive your official Receipt Notice
This won’t be a very fast live blog. Maybe there’ll be more in 7-10 days.
Also on Day 6 (just noticed) USCIS cashed the payment check with ACH electronic funds transfer. Probably before telling me the case was accepted.
Day 8. The I-797C Notice of Action – the “official Receipt Notice” – arrives. the notice date was Day 3 – but that was a Friday. I didn’t have to wait 7-10 days after all.
Day 10. Another I-797C Notice. This time the appointment for biometrics. This is all happening very very fast. Biometrics day will be on Day 28. At 8.am. Fingerprints for the FBI check. My second check in a year (they run the check for your state bar “moral character” evaluation as well). The important small print is
the photo taken may be used on your naturalization certificate
In other words, look presentable.
Day 28. 8am appointment and a 45 minute drive in good traffic to get there. For biometrics. i.e. prints and mugshot. Half a dozen other people waiting outside the door when it opened at 8. I did a little pro-bono lawyering – really just giving “the talk” to someone who was there to get her green card renewed – everyone else in her family are already citizens. You take such a risk by staying as an LPR. The whole thing took about half an hour. Staff were very helpful to everyone. Now, I suppose, I just wait.
Day 43: “My Case Status” at uscis.gov reports that I have been scheduled for interview. Waiting for the notice.
Day 49: I have the interview date. It will be on Day 79 of the process. 11 weeks from mailing the application to getting an interview. I’m impressed.
Day 79 happened.
Lovely sunny day. Found the last parking place at Larkspur Landing for the 11.10 ferry to San Francisco. Walked from the Embarcadero to Sansome St. 12.30 seems like a nice time to have an appointment. Very few people there. None of the queues I remember from my early morning green card interview. Just a few minutes after my scheduled time, I was called in for interview.
The USCIS officer was very friendly. Which is one of the best ways to extract information. I was sworn in, she checked my documents, and then ran the “test.” I noticed one family in the waiting room studying for the questions. Yes I know what the supreme law of the land is, what an amendment is, who vetoes bills, who were the bad guys in world war two, what you pledge allegiance to, and where Jerry Brown works. Then she talked me through my history and the application form – and it was done. 30 minutes and she ticked the box that said Congratulations. They only recommend, but it’s a step forward.
I was surprised how much they all put you at your ease and there is no sense of confrontation or us and them formality – there was that feeling five years ago. Not only could I ask her questions (about my daughter’s possible status as an immediate relative, and also about a friend’s issue with FNU and GNU – not the free software foundation – and worth a separate blog post). I left the room feeling that it had been a very special moment. One that I would not forget. Thank you Ms. Officer.
Now more waiting.
But only until Day 86. It took 1 week for them to process the interview data, approve it (yay) and set a date for an oath ceremony. Which should be at the Paramount in Oakland. My Case Status” at uscis.gov reports that I have been scheduled for the final step in the process. Just 12 and a half weeks.
And on Day 90 I get the Form N-445 – Notice of Naturalization Oath Ceremony – it will all be over on Day 98. At the Paramount.
The Oath Ceremony at the Paramount in Oakland was extraordinary.
It was wonderfully well organized. I arrived just before 9.15am expecting queues outside. Instead, you go straight in – there are about a dozen ushers who check your paperwork and direct you to one of 10 entrances. And each entrance is for a particular section of the auditorium. A couple of minutes after arriving, I was in my seat, in section 10. I had given up my green card “what is this?” “it is my OLD green card?” “why don’t you need it?”
There were 1079 applicants, from 104 countries. And maybe three times as many guests – guests all went upstairs into the gallery. It was a ceremony. It was well planned. Funny at times. And all over by 10.40am.
When you go through the process you have no sense of anyone else doing the same. You fill out your forms, alone. You attend your interview, mostly alone. And then you reach the ceremony with 1078 other people. That is the one big surprise. When you sent your packet to USCIS on day 1, they probably received 50 others on the same day from your region. And many of those people are in the auditorium with you at the end. It’s a lonely road, but you are not alone.
I hope they never replace the ceremony with a welcome email. The Paramount became our port of entry. We all arrived together. At the same time on the same day. Just like those that poured into Ellis Island off the ships in the black and white photographs.
And this evening I registered to vote.
Don’t wait. Don’t put it off. Make sure you are safe first. Make sure there are no red flags.
Just do it.
p.s. September 2015.
Nowadays I help people get citizenship. And their experiences – at least in the Bay Area – have been very similar to mine. There are just a few things I want to add to the original post – with hindsight. First is that the interview is non-adversarial. Usually it becomes a fond memory for the applicant. Second is that you must bring originals of paperwork to the interview – particularly when they are court dispositions, as they will RFE you for them if you don’t, and that can cause an anxious few weeks wait – or longer. Third, the first thing they do is check that you are still entitled to your green card – and that’s why you need to be careful. If you have law enforcement issues, if you have spent significant time abroad – even years and years ago, or if there is any peculiarity with how you got your green card, you should get professional advice. Fourth, remember they want to know about traffic citations – other than parking – as well as arrests etc. And fifth, without citizenship you can lose your card at any time. Particularly if you plan to spend time abroad.
When you apply for your first US Passport, get a passport card as well. After the oath ceremony you no longer have a green card. But you are still foreign sounding and you may have to prove your status occasionally. The passport card can replace your old green card as proof that you are here lawfully.
Finally, remember that even if your home country does not allow dual citizenship, they often have special status for those who naturalize. So you may lose the right to vote back home, but you may still be able to travel there freely, work etc. Before you decide not to apply for US Citizenship check with your embassy about what the real cost is.