U.S. Citizenship Through Parents

U.S. citizenship law has been amended by Congress multiple times through the years. Because of this, determining if you “acquired” citizenship at birth through a parent, or “derived” citizenship as a minor through a parent, can be a complicated task.

The requirements for showing acquisition and derivation of citizenship change depending on your date of birth. For example, in the citizenship acquisition (at birth) context, if you were born between January 14, 1941 and December 23, 1952 and one of your parents is a U.S. citizen and the other not, you would have to prove that your U.S. citizen parent resided in the U.S. for 10 years (at least 5 of which were after age 16). But if you were born on or after November 14, 1986, your U.S. citizen parent would have had to reside in the U.S. for only 5 years (at least 2 of which were after age 14). A seemingly minor difference, but it can make or break a case of citizenship acquisition.

There are four “citizenship charts” that attorneys reference in determining if an individual acquired or derived U.S. citizenship. The charts are provided here for reference.

Chart 1: Acquisition of Citizenship at Birth (In Wedlock)
Chart 2: Acquisition of Citizenship at Birth (Out of Wedlock)
Chart 3: Derivation of Citizenship as a Minor
Chart 4: Natural or Adoptive Child of a U.S. Citizen

Making the case that you are already a U.S. citizen can be done in a number of ways. Remember that this is not the same as applying for citizenship through Naturalization; that is asking the government to make you a citizen, not proving that you’re a citizen already. Showing that you’re a citizen already can be done simply by filing forms with the government. The options are the Form N-600 (U.S. Department of Homeland Security) or Form DS-11 (U.S. Passport Application). The N-600 is much more expensive than the DS-11. As of the time of this writing, the N-600 costs a whopping $1,170 where as the passport application is only $145 (it costs slightly more if you want a passport book and card together). There are some benefits to applying on both the N-600 and DS-11. Some state and local agencies draw from Homeland Security databases and not State Department databases. So if you do not appear in your state’s XYZ Agency database and you have a U.S. passport from an acquisition or derivation application, that could be the reason. In that circumstance, you might consider filing an N-600 in order to show up in the state agency’s database.

Showing that you’re a citizen already can also be a defense used if you find yourself in removal or deportation proceedings. In that instance, an applicant would need to show to the satisfaction of an immigration judge, typically in the form of a Motion to Terminate removal proceedings that s/he meets the applicable requirements set out in the law (as seen in the citizenship charts) evidencing that s/he is already a U.S. citizen.

A U.S. Supreme Court case from 2017 highlights the complexity of acquisition and derivation matters. In Sessions v. Morales-Santana, 582 U.S. ____ (2017), the Court found that a law requiring physical presence of U.S. citizen fathers was “overbroad.” Mr. Morales-Santana, the child in this case, was unable to acquire citizenship because his father died 20 days short of meeting the physical presence requirement. The Court decided not to apply the more favorable one-year physical presence requirement to citizen fathers of children born out of wedlock, but instead struck down the exception that granted more favorable treatment to citizen mothers. Read the full case text here.

More court cases involving U.S. citizenship acquisition and derivation: