The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, is the agency of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that handles immigration services. With headquarters in Washington, D.C. and 233 other offices, the USCIS employs 19,000 people worldwide. The agency is primarily funded by immigration fees and, in a very small part, by taxpayer money. It was one of three agencies that replaced the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service, or INS, in 2003. The other two are the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Those agencies are responsible for enforcing laws related to immigration. The USCIS handles immigration applications and making decisions about whether individuals are granted citizenship. In short, the USCIS is the first place to which foreign citizens turn when they want to become U.S. citizens.
The USCIS can grant Green Card and citizenship requests. The two are related but not interchangeable. For most foreign nationals, the first step toward becoming a U.S. citizen is applying for a Green Card, or permanent residency. Green Card holders are legally allowed to live and work in the United States. Unlike U.S. citizens, they're not allowed to vote. They are also subject to being deported under certain conditions. The desire to become a U.S. citizen isn't enough to get a Green Card. In most cases, the USCIS requires that you have a close family member with U.S. citizenship, a job offer from a U.S.-based employer, or refugee or asylum status. The USCIS must also rule that you're admissible in the United States. This would mean you don't pose a health, criminal, or security risk. Military service is another route to naturalization and citizenship. Military members and their family members may be entitled to expedited processing of Green Card and citizenship applications. Securing a Green Card is a complicated process. There are many exceptions and requirements for individuals, which can vary depending on circumstances. The process can take months, cost more than $1,000, and needs a lot of forms to be completed.
The USCIS grants U.S. citizenship in two ways: through birth and through naturalization. You're granted citizenship by birth if you're born in the United States, or if you're born abroad to parents with U.S. citizenship who properly report your birth to the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. Becoming a citizen through naturalization first requires having a valid Green Card for a period of 5 years. Most people will also need to meet other requirements, such as passing a test that includes an English section and a civics section.
Starting the Process
The USCIS offers all its forms for free online, as well as by phone and by mail. The agency does strive to make the application processes straightforward. However, they can still be confusing and overwhelming even for a native English speaker. That confusion makes it easy for scammers to prey on immigrants. Be wary of anyone who asks you to pay to access USCIS forms or to pay immigration fees by phone or email. If you need help starting the immigration process, you have a few options.
- Schedule an appointment at your nearest USCIS office or contact USCIS customer service.
- Attend one of the free information sessions the USCIS routinely offers throughout the country.
- Find a local expert. The USCIS offers a list of resources by state, or you can hire a local, reputable immigration attorney to explain your options and guide you through the process.
Need help with the USCIS?
If you live in the San Antonio area and are dealing with anything related to the USCIS, contact the immigration attorneys at Salmón-Haas. Their experience in dealing with immigration cases for current and future Texans can help you work towards the best solution possible.