Some Naturalization Applicants Are More Equal than Others, and That’s OK

By David North on January 8, 2024

I have written recently about inconsistencies in the immigrant and nonimmigrant rules (see here and here). Today we discuss a similar pattern in the naturalization field, but one that is totally appropriate.

Whereas the migrant and non-migrant variations cover large groups of people, usually defined by the nation of birth, the exception in the naturalization system relates to the occupation of the citizens involved in a small portion of citizen-alien marriages.

Routinely, an alien becomes eligible for naturalization after spending five years in green card status and residing in the States and applying for it. There is an exception to the five-year rule if the alien is married to a U.S. citizen, such aliens need only three years of residence.

What I learned the other day, in a manner described below, is that there is a rare exception to that three-year exception — under some circumstances, some aliens can qualify for citizenship despite living in the U.S. for less than the usual three years. The residence requirement for these new spouses of citizens is simply waived.

The exception is for spouses of U.S. diplomats and some others working overseas for various U.S. entities, businesses, or as missionaries.

For example, if an American diplomat — a U.S. citizen, obviously — marries an alien, and if the diplomat is living overseas and if the alien lives with the diplomat (as most newly wedded people do), then without other arrangements that alien would not be living in the U.S. for naturalization purposes. The exception to the exception means that a diplomat’s spouse can become a citizen despite not living in the U.S. for the usual three years. That alien is not, in short, being discriminated against because the alien’s spouse is serving our country overseas. That make sense.

I report all of this here with a bit of a twinge. The arrangement is one I just learned about, which troubles me as I thought I knew all the ins and outs of our naturalization system.

Mine, some years ago, was the first Ford Foundation report on naturalization. I studied the process for both Ford and the German Marshall Fund, talked to naturalization officers and experts in three nations (the U.S., Canada, and Australia), and attended naturalization ceremonies in the same three nations. The title of my report for Ford, “The Long, Grey Welcome”, related to the fact that the Aussie and Canadian ceremonies for new citizens were remarkably more lively and more colorful than ours.

I stumbled on the concept of waiving residency requirement for spouses of diplomats when reviewing, as I do daily, the accumulated accounts of law enforcement to see what was being done to enforce the immigration laws. I came across a report on a marriage-related immigration fraud case involving a female U.S. diplomat, and her Russian-born spouse.

Both had been convicted in federal district courts for violating the immigration law, a decision which would be fatal to a career as a diplomat. Though now divorced from each other, both had appealed and their convictions were quashed by the Fourth Circuit on the grounds that “some of the lies they were charged with couldn't support their guilty verdicts”. The appeals court remanded the case back to the Eastern District of Virginia for further action.

Without getting too deep in the details of the case, she met the Russian in California, they married in 2015, she subsequently became a foreign service officer and was stationed in Mexico; they filed papers under 8 U.S.C. § 1430 (b), “which waives the required residency period for noncitizens whose U.S. citizen spouses are ‘in the employment of the Government of the United States’ and “regularly [are] stationed abroad’”.

He apparently did not live with her in Mexico, and another foreign service officer filed a complaint of some kind with the State Department, which led to the court case. The appeals decision can be seen here.

Though USCIS has reams of statistics on naturalization, there are none published on this small group.

Small World Department. The senior federal district court judge who heard the case, and whose decision was reversed, Thomas Ellis, was the divorce lawyer for my first (and now deceased) wife more than 40 years ago.