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Citizenship and marriage is a multifaceted procedure

When I was growing up, I thought if a non-citizen married an American citizen, then the non-citizen automatically became an American citizen. The other day, there was an article about ICE arresting and deporting a man whose wife is an American citizen. What is the law on this matter, and when did it change?

— Steve B., Medford

Well, the road to citizenship is a bit longer than a trip to the altar, Steve, and has been for some time.

A non-citizen who marries a U.S. citizen with the intent to live together in this country must apply for a green card. The green card grants residency for either 10 years, as a permanent and renewable card, or two years with conditions that must be removed to be eligible to stay longer than that amount of time.

Green card applicants may be rejected for various reasons, including medical problems, criminal history or a history of immigration violation. Immigration authorities may also reject a green card application for a spouse if it concludes that the marriage is fraudulent (i.e., the couple married with the sole intent of procuring a green card for one of the parties).

Immigrant spouses can apply for citizenship after three years as a lawful, permanent resident — that is, if they are still married to their citizen or permanent resident spouse. If not, that wait extends to five years.

Any citizen's spouse is from then on considered an "immediate relative" and can therefore come to the U.S. legally with a green card for "Alien Relatives," in immigration terms. The combination of marriage to a citizen and lawful original entry into the country (whether through a tourist, student or fiancé visa that has since expired) allows for special "adjusting" privileges while applying for permanent residency. These privileges mean that those spouses can, and should, stay in the country while they apply for their next green card.

Conversely, if the spouse did not enter the country lawfully, as was the case with a man deported last month to Mexico 30 years after he was brought as a child to the U.S., he or she will have to leave the U.S. while applying for a green card. On top of that, the spouse may face a three-year bar from entering the U.S. as punishment for being in the country unlawfully for 180 days to a year. They face a 10-year ban for being in the country longer than a year, and face a lifetime ban if they enter the country again while banned.

The bottom line is, if a citizen's spouse entered the country legally originally, that will often make it easier for the spouse to obtain either lawful permanent residence or citizenship, provided he or she hasn't accrued a criminal history and meets the financial support criteria, to give a couple of examples.

All international spouses or spouses-to-be have financial hoops to jump through; the citizen must fill out immigration Form I-864, the affidavit of support. This indicates that the citizen will be able to financially support the immigrant spouse at a level above U.S. poverty guidelines for about 10 years. If the citizen spouse can't provide the total income and assets to do so, they'll need someone else to promise such support until the requirements are met. While the assets of the immigrating spouse can contribute, their income at an expected or current job in the U.S. does not count.

In short, it also takes a sufficient amount of money on both parties' account to achieve a legal married living situation.

— Send questions to “Since You Asked,” Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by email to youasked@rosebudmedia.com. We’re sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.