September 2023 Peek at Pro Bono - Expedited Citizenship for Spouses of U.S. Missionaries and Others Who Are Regularly Stationed Abroad

by Emily Singer Hurvitz

Becoming a U.S. citizen is the ultimate goal of many new immigrants to the United States. A U.S. citizen has the highest level of rights and protections in the United States, including the right to vote in U.S. federal elections and many state elections, the right to obtain a U.S. passport, the right to apply for some federal jobs with U.S. government agencies, and the right to remain in the United States without fear of being deported.

For most immigrants, before becoming a U.S. citizen, they need to be a Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR) for a specified period of time and meet certain requirements before they become eligible to apply for citizenship—also known as “naturalizing.” Eligibility to naturalize includes the following requirements:

Be at least 18 years old;
Be an LPR for at least five years (or three years, if married to a U.S. citizen);
Show continuous residence in the United States for at least five years (or three years, if married to a U.S. citizen);
Show physical presence in the United States for at least thirty months out of the five years as an LPR (or eighteen months out of the three years, if married to a U.S. citizen);
Show you have lived for at least three months in your state;
Show that you are a person of good moral character;
Show an attachment to the principles and ideals of the U.S. Constitution;
Be able to read, write, and speak basic English (or qualify for an exemption);
Have knowledge and understanding of U.S. civics; and
Take an Oath of Allegiance to the United States.

The continuous residence and physical presence requirements can be problematic for certain LPRs, specifically for those who are married to a U.S. citizen who is regularly stationed abroad for their job. This includes spouses of military service members and other U.S. citizens who are stationed abroad. Luckily, the U.S. immigration regulations include an expedited naturalization process for people in this situation. For spouses of military service members, the relevant regulation is in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) Sections 316(a) and 319(a). Other U.S. citizens who are regularly stationed abroad include those working for:

The United States government (including the U.S. armed forces);
American institution of research;
American firm or corporation engaged in whole or in part in the development of foreign trade and commerce of the United States;
Public international organization in which the United States participates by treaty or statute;
A religious denomination having a bona fide organization within the United States that authorizes them to perform ministerial or priestly functions; or
A religious denomination or an interdenominational mission organization having a bona fide organization within the United States through which they are engaged solely as a missionary.

Spouses of U.S. citizens employed in these types of positions are able to use the expedited naturalization process outlined in INA Section 319(b). Under this special process, the spouse of a U.S. citizen who is regularly stationed abroad does not need to show any specified period of residence or physical presence in the United States to qualify for naturalization. Instead of the continuous residence and physical presence requirements, they need to demonstrate the following:

They are married to a U.S. citizen spouse who is regularly stationed abroad in qualifying employment for at least one year;
They have a good faith intent to reside abroad with the U.S. citizen spouse upon naturalization and to reside in the United States immediately upon the citizen spouse’s termination of employment abroad; and
They will depart the United States to join the U.S. citizen spouse abroad within thirty to forty-five days after the date of naturalization.

The expedited naturalization option that is described in INA Section 319(b) (also known as “Section 319(b) naturalization”) can be incredibly helpful to families—with one LPR spouse and one U.S. citizen spouse—that need to live outside of the United States for their work.

The Damron Family
Jake and Raquel Damron met in 2017 when Jake—who is a U.S. citizen—traveled to Lima, Perú for a five-month Christian missionary internship with a local church called Camino De Vida. Raquel was born and raised in Lima and was a singer and worship leader at the church where Jake was interning. The two clicked and stayed in touch long-distance. Jake returned to Lima in April 2018, and after spending a week with Raquel’s family and asking her parents for permission to marry her—in his very broken Spanish at the time—he dropped to one knee and proposed with friends and family present. Today, Jake and Raquel have been married for four years and are back in Lima as missionaries working in the same church where they met. The couple has a one-year-old son named Timothy and they continue to give their lives to care for the people of Perú through their missionary work.

I recently filed an expedited naturalization application for Raquel under INA Section 319(b) because she is married to a U.S. citizen who is a missionary. Raquel is eligible for Section 319(b) expedited naturalization because her U.S. citizen spouse is engaged solely as a missionary by a religious denomination or by an interdenominational mission organization having a bona fide organization within the United States. Raquel and Jake are both currently serving as full-time vocational missionaries in Lima, Perú under Focused Ministries, a registered 501(c)(3) public charity. Focused Ministries promotes healthy and holistic relationships among people of every race, religion, gender, and nationality, through events, mobilization, advocacy, and entreating. Jake and Raquel serve their mission at Camino De Vida Church in Lima, Perú by discipling worship team members, leading worship for weekly services, teaching Bible doctrine classes, serving within “Casa Gracia” and “Refugio Gracia” (ministry houses for girls and guys who struggle with addictions), and reaching out into different parts of Perú through “Servolución.” Jake and Raquel have been missionary partners with Focused Ministries since 2021. Since Jake and Raquel serve as missionaries in Perú and do not earn a regular salary, I provided my services pro bono.

As a Lawful Permanent Resident who is married to a U.S. citizen who is working as a full-time missionary abroad, Raquel qualifies for this unique expedited naturalization process. We submitted Raquel’s application to U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS).

Normally, the next step in the naturalization process would be for an applicant for U.S. citizenship to attend a biometrics appointment at a local USCIS field office near their home address where USCIS captures their photograph and fingerprints for security and background checks. For Section 319(b) expedited naturalization cases, USCIS will generally accept the applicant’s fingerprints on an official fingerprint card submitted with the application materials.

When USCIS is ready to adjudicate the naturalization application, they will schedule the applicant for an in-person naturalization interview at a local USCIS field office near the applicant’s home address. Applicants for Section 319(b) expedited naturalization cases also need to appear for an in-person interview at a local USCIS field office, but since they do not live inside the United States, USCIS gives them the option to schedule their naturalization interview at any USCIS field office location that is convenient for them. Some applicants will choose to schedule the interview in a U.S. city where they have family so they can visit their family when they travel to the United States for the naturalization interview.

If the Applicant does not have a preference for the location of the interview, my recommendation is to request an interview in Washington, D.C. The benefit of interviewing in Washington, D.C. is that there is a U.S. Passport Agency there where the applicant can apply for an expedited U.S. passport quickly after receiving their certificate of U.S. citizenship. This is important to consider because the applicant will need to receive a U.S. passport in between becoming a U.S. citizen and leaving the United States. According to 22 CFR section 53.1, “[i]t is unlawful for a citizen of the United States . . . to enter or depart, or attempt to enter or depart, the United States, without a valid U.S. passport.” Due to this requirement, it is critical for Section 319(b) expedited naturalization applicants to plan ahead for how they will get their U.S. passport during their brief trip to the United States for the naturalization interview. As described above, Section 319(b) requires the applicant to “depart the United States to join the U.S. citizen spouse abroad within 30 to 45 days after the date of naturalization.” The applicant cannot wait the routine processing time of ten-to-thirteen weeks—or even the expedited processing time of seven-to-nine weeks—inside the United States to receive their U.S. passport. They must use the special application process for applicants with urgent international travel, and these appointments can only be scheduled at a U.S. Passport Agency. U.S. Passport Agencies are operated by the U.S. Department of State and are different than passport acceptance facilities which are more common and include post offices, libraries, and local government offices. There are U.S. Passport Agencies throughout the United States that can accept urgent passport applications, but the agency in Washington, D.C. is used to seeing applications from new U.S. citizens who have gone through this process.

In light of these specific requirements, Jake and Raquel agreed that it was best to request for Raquel’s naturalization interview to be scheduled in Washington, D.C. After filing the expedited naturalization case in May 2023, we heard from USCIS regarding Raquel’s naturalization interview in July 2023. The government offered Raquel interview dates in July, August, and September 2023. Since Jake and Raquel plan to be in the United States in November for a family wedding, we asked USCIS to schedule Raquel’s naturalization interview in November 2023.

Importance of Section 319(b) Naturalization
The Section 319(b) expedited naturalization process is necessary for families with one LPR spouse and one U.S. citizen spouse where the family needs to live outside of the United States for work.

LPRs do not have the same rights as U.S. citizens, and their status in the United States is not guaranteed. An LPR can lose their permanent resident status by either accidentally or intentionally abandoning it with any of the following steps:

Moving to another country and intending to live there permanently;
Declaring themselves a “nonimmigrant” on your U.S. tax returns; or
Remaining outside of the United States for an extended period of time, unless it’s a temporary absence, as shown by:

The reason for the trip;
How long they planned to be absent from the United States;
Any other circumstances of the absence; and
Any events that may have prolonged the absence.

Additionally, simply by being outside of the United States for over six months at a time can put an LPR at risk of having a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer declare that the LPR has abandoned their LPR status after being outside of the United States for over six months. If the LPR is outside of the United States for over one year, there is a presumption that the LPR has abandoned their permanent resident status in the United States.

One way that LPRs can preserve their LPR status is to apply for a Re-Entry Permit. This is a travel document that preserves LPR status and allows an LPR to be outside of the United States for up to two years without abandoning their LPR status. But the Re-Entry Permit can only be renewed a couple of times, so for LPRs that need to be outside of the United States for long periods of time for many years because of their spouse’s work, the Re-Entry Permit will not be a permanent solution.

Since it can be difficult to maintain LPR status while living outside of the United States, it is very helpful for LPRs who are spouses of U.S. citizens regularly stationed abroad in qualifying employment to have the option to become a U.S. citizen on an expedited basis, without having to meet the standard physical presence and continuous residence requirements that most applicants for naturalization must meet. This is a very specific area of naturalization law that practitioners should be aware of and should consider whenever their clients are families that are regularly stationed abroad.

I became an immigration attorney be­cause I love to help people fulfill their American dream. Carving out space in my practice for pro bono cases allows me to work with clients who otherwise could not afford my services, but who may benefit substantially from working with me. It is incredibly rewarding to work with clients like the Damron family because their selfless service to others in need is truly inspiring. Though I do not practice the same religion as they do, I am grateful for the opportunity to use my expertise to make it easier for the Damron family to support communities in need around the globe. In this way, it feels like the impact of my pro bono work is multiplied. I recommend to all attorneys to always look for opportunities to do meaningful pro bono work, especially when it means supporting those who are dedicated to helping others.

Emily Singer Hurvitz, practices immigration law at the Law Office of Emily Singer Hurvitz, PC, and can be reached at emily@singerhurvitzlaw.com.

Peek at Pro Bono is an occasional column that offers insight into meaningful pro bono work being done by an Orange County lawyer.