There are two main statuses held by lawful residents of the United States: Permanent Resident and U.S. Citizen. While both of these statuses grant certain rights to the individuals who hold them, there are some fundamental distinctions that are important to understand if you or someone you know is seeking one of these two statuses.
Lawful Permanent Residence
Once an individual has obtained a United States Permanent Resident Card (also known as a green card), they are considered to be a permanent resident of the United States. This status allows the individual to live and work within the United States on a permanent basis and, with some exceptions discussed below, travel outside the U.S. Additionally, this individual can petition for certain family members (e.g. spouse, unmarried children) to join them in the U.S. as permanent residents.
There are, however, some limitations of rights associated with this status that differentiate it from citizenship. Because permanent residents are considered aliens or citizens of another country, they are not permitted to vote in U.S. elections and are barred from seeking some government jobs. When they travel, they are required to carry both the passport of their native country and their U.S. Permanent Resident Card to be allowed reentry back into the United States. If they plan to travel outside the U.S. for a period exceeding 12 months, they should first contact the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for a reentry permit.
U.S. permanent residents can lose their status under certain circumstances. If a permanent resident leaves the U.S. to pursue residency in another country, or if they spend 12 months living outside the U.S. without requesting a reentry first, they are considered to have abandoned their residence in the U.S. This will subject them to inadmissibility if they attempt to reenter the United States. Permanent residents are also subject to deportation to their native country if they commit certain offenses or fail to comply with USCIS requirements.
If you were born in the U.S. or born to U.S. citizen parents living abroad, you are automatically a U.S. citizen. A U.S. citizen cannot be deported, they are not subject to restrictions on travel, and they have the right to live outside the U.S. indefinitely. U.S. citizens have the right to vote in federal, state, and local elections, to hold certain government jobs and offices, and to seek certain benefits and scholarships reserved for citizens only. When a U.S. citizen petitions for others to receive permanent residence, they can do so for a longer a list of family members (including parents and siblings) and, depending on whom they petition, in a more expedited manner.
Acquiring U.S. Citizenship
In an overwhelming majority of cases, the first step to acquiring U.S. citizenship is to become a U.S. Permanent Resident. Permanent residents can apply for U.S. citizenship after a minimum required waiting period and become citizens through naturalization. The application process can account for many factors including age, behavior whilst a permanent resident, continuity of physical presence in the U.S., and an ability to read, write and speak English. If you have questions regarding your eligibility or the general process of naturalization, you should seek assistance from an experienced U.S. immigration attorney.