What it takes to become an American citizen

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Naturalized U.S. citizens share equally in the rights and privileges of American citizenship.

Deciding to become a U.S. citizen is one of the most life-changing commitments an immigrant can make. Still, some 680,000 people from all over the world take an Oath of Allegiance each year to attain U.S. citizenship and become a part of the American fabric: "E Pluribus Unum -- From many, one."

It's not an easy process. It involves years of study and red tape and a dizzying array of applications, documents and fees.

The civics portion of the formal test for citizenship contains question such as: How many amendments to the Constitution? (27) How many voting members are in the House of Representatives? (435)

The decision brings with it deep emotion: Candidates for citizenship must forsake allegiance to the land of their birth and any other country, give up any title or position of nobility and agree to fight in the U.S. Armed Forces, if required.

Ah, but the privileges that come with belonging to this land of the free and home of the brave -- life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness!

Here are the basics on just a few of an alphabet of eligibility requirements for adults who want to become U.S. citizens:

• Be 18 or older at the time of filing.

• Be a permanent resident, sometimes called a green card holder, for at least five years without leaving the states for trips of six months or longer. A green card -- and it's not necessarily green -- is a card granted by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services that shows a person has been authorized to live and work in the United States on a permanent basis. Most such permanent residents are sponsored by a family member or employer in the States.

• Be physically present in the United States for at least 30 months out of the five years immediately preceding the date of filing the application and reside continuously within the States from the date of application up to the time of naturalization.

• Be able to read, write and speak English and have knowledge and an understanding of U.S. history and government.

• Be a person of good moral character (some crimes make a person ineligible), attached to the principles of the Constitution and "well disposed to the good order and happiness of the United States ... "

• Take the Oath of Allegiance, make a first pledge to the U.S. flag and sing the national anthem -- a cheat sheet with the words is provided -- during an official naturalization ceremony, generally held in a county courthouse. " ... I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty ... of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen ... "

Powerful words for a powerful decision.

Some 8.5 million immigrants in the U.S. have green cards. It costs $475 to apply and, if granted -- there is a wait time of several months -- the card is valid for 10 years. The fee to start the naturalization process is $675 and the wait is from six months to a year. Lawyer fees may also be added for both applications.

There are, of course, myriad exemptions to this process, based on age, marital and family status, disability, some jobs, military service and others.

Details: www.uscis.gov; www.immihelp.com or 1-800-375-5283.

holidays - neigh_south

Virginia Kopas Joe: vkjoe@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1414. Follow her at Twitter@virginiajoe2.


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