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Divorce, custody and immigrants: A tricky path to citizenship

The idea of moving to a new country and starting a new life is pretty daunting, but men and women are doing it. According to the Illinois Office of New Americans Policy and Advocacy, the number of immigrants statewide who became naturalized citizens jumped 23 percent from 2000 to 2005. In suburbs like Lake County, the numbers have been even higher, with a 38 percent increase in the last five years.

In some cases, families come to Illinois together. In others, one spouse comes first, then the rest of the family joins him or her. There are also cases -- perhaps the hardest to fathom for many of us who were born and raised here -- when one or both parents must leave a child behind until the time is right to reunite.

That was the situation for one woman whose friend contacted a newspaper immigration column on her behalf. The woman was a naturalized citizen; her husband was a U.S. citizen, too, though it was not clear if he had been born here. She wanted to bring her son to the States to live with her, but she also wanted to leave her husband. The question for the columnist was whether a divorce would affect the son's citizenship status.

The answer, of course, is "It depends."

Let's back up a bit to discuss the options for the mother to become a citizen. If she married a U.S. citizen, she would have qualified for a green card -- that is, she would have received permanent resident status. After three years, she could apply to be a citizen. (If she got her green card through another connection, like her job, she would have had to wait five years before applying.)

During those three years, she must have lived with her husband "in marital union," according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website. She had to continue to live with him during the application process, too.

Once she is a citizen, even if her marriage was key to her naturalization, she can leave her husband without jeopardizing her status. To file for divorce, she must only worry about the state divorce laws for residency and so on.

Her status is just one component of her son's road to citizenship, though. We'll explain further in our next post.

Source: New York Daily News, "Divorce will have no effect on son's citizenship, But rules get stricter if he's over 18," Allan Wernick, July 22, 2013

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