The final step in the asylum journey is U.S. citizenship. When an asylee applies for citizenship, there are some unique issues to be aware of, and we'll discuss those here.

First, let's talk about the time frame. If you are a regular reader of this blog, you probably already know that the wait time for an asylum case is unpredictable. Some (lucky few) people file a case and complete it within a few months, but the large majority of asylum applicants wait years for a decision. If you win your asylum case at the Asylum Office or in Immigration Court, you have asylum status, and are eligible to file for your Green Card after one year of physical presence in the U.S. This means that if you leave the United States during this period, you have to wait additional time to apply for the Green Card. For example, if you leave the country for two weeks, you have to wait one year and two weeks from the date you received asylum before you are eligible to apply for a Green Card.

The time frame to process a Green Card is also unpredictable. If you check the USCIS processing times, you will see that wait times range from under one year to over 3½ years. In my practice, most asylees seem to get their Green Cards in one or two years. When an asylee receives a Green Card, the card is back-dated one year. Meaning, if you receive your Green Card on December 1, 2020, the card will indicate that you have been a lawful permanent resident (a Green Card holder) since December 1, 2019. Most people will be eligible to file for citizenship five years after the date listed on the Green Card (so in this example, December 1, 2024). And in fact, you are allowed to mail the citizenship form (the N-400) up to 90 days before the five-year anniversary (in our example, this would be about September 2, 2024). That said, if you leave the United States for significant periods of time, or for any one trip of six months or more, or if you've recently moved to a new state, you might have to wait longer than five years to apply for citizenship.

Processing times for the N-400 are also all over the map, but most offices seem to complete their cases between six months and two years after filing. So overall, from filing for asylum to becoming a U.S. citizen, most applicants are looking at a wait time of between eight and 13 years.

Now let's talk about some of the challenges asylum seekers face on the path to becoming U.S. citizens.

First is the Green Card form, the I-485, itself. The problem here is that this form contains dozens of questions, many of which are quite confusing. Mistakes on this form can lead to issues during the naturalization process. I've written previously about some of the pitfalls on the I-485. The problem is compounded by the fact that most principal asylees are not interviewed during the Green Card process, and so a USCIS officer never asks you to clarify or correct your answers on the I-485 (dependent asylees are supposed to all be interviewed during the Green Card process, but this does not always happen). Thus, if you make a mistake on the I-485, or if your answers between the I-589 (the asylum form) and the I-485 are inconsistent, this could cause problems at the naturalization stage, and could even cause USCIS to deny your application for citizenship.

The best way to protect yourself here is to make sure that the I-485, the I-589, and any other forms or visa applications you submitted are consistent--in terms of addresses, jobs, family members, membership in organizations, arrests (including political arrests), lies to the U.S. government (including when you applied for a visa), etc. If there are inconsistencies, you should explain those on the I-485 supplement page or in the cover letter. Also, make sure to keep a copy of all the forms and documents you submit to USCIS, so you will have those when you prepare for naturalization. If you do not have copies of your forms and documents, you can obtain them from the government through a Freedom of Information Act request.

A second challenge is the N-400, the naturalization form. This form also contains dozens of confusing questions, and the answers must be consistent with the answers you gave on your prior applications (forms I-589 and I-485). If not, you should explain the inconsistencies. During the naturalization process, USCIS looks closely at your entire history, and so issues that may have been overlooked during the I-485 process (where most people do not receive an interview) often come to light after the N-400 is filed.

One question that sometimes causes problems on the N-400 is whether you have ever given false or misleading information to the U.S. government. Say, for example, you listed your membership in a church on your I-589, but forgot to list that membership on the I-485. USCIS could--and I have seen this--accuse you of lying on the forms, since there is an inconsistency between the I-589 and the I-485, and you failed to mention this "misrepresentation" in response to the question on form N-400. The best way to avoid a problem is to be sure that all your forms are consistent, but if you do make a mistake, you can explain what happened and hopefully overcome the problem (in my experience, when you explain the inconsistencies, USCIS will generally approve the application).

Another challenge is the naturalization interview. Sometimes, asylees are asked about their asylum case during this interview. Of course, by the time you naturalize, many years may have passed since the events of your asylum case, and so you may not remember all the details. For this reason, it is a good idea to review your asylum case prior to the naturalization interview. Also, if you are asked a question and do not remember the answer, it is better to say that you do not know, rather than to guess and risk making an inconsistent statement. For the most part, officers rarely ask detailed questions about the old asylum case, but they could, and so you should prepare accordingly.

Finally, if the N-400 is approved, you will be scheduled for an oath ceremony and sworn in as a United States citizen. The whole affair is a long and often stressful process, but once the asylum case is approved, there is far less uncertainty and it is mainly a question of navigating the bureaucracy. If you keep copies of all your forms and documents, and you are careful that each application is consistent with prior applications, you should have little trouble moving through the process and--finally--becoming a U.S. citizen.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: