How do you become a United States citizen?

I have heard on the news that the Congress is considering a bill to grant Elian Gonzalez United States citizenship. I was under the impression that an individual had to take a series of tests and meet other requirements to become a citizen. How can the Congress circumvent this process and grant someone citizenship by passing a bill?

An individual can become a citizen of the United States of America three different ways:

1. BIRTH

If you were born in the United States you are an American citizen by birth. In most cases, you are also a citizen by birth if you were born in Puerto Rico, Guam or the U.S. Virgin Islands. If you were born in the United States but your parents were foreign diplomats (on assignment in the United States from another country) at the time of your birth, you are not a United States citizen.

If you were born outside of the United States and both of your parents were United States citizens at the time and at least one of them had lived in the United States at some point before your birth, you are also a U.S. citizen by birth. If only one of your parents is a U.S. citizen and you are born overseas, your citizen parent must have lived in the United States for at least five years (including at least two years after the age of fourteen) for you to be considered a U.S. citizen by birth. 

2. NATURALIZATION

The Constitution of the United States of American empowers the Congress "to establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization" (Article I, Section 8). Through the procedures the Congress establishes, individuals who are not natural born citizens of the United States may become "naturalized" citizens.

In general, an individual must first be granted status as a permanent United States resident before becoming eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship. In almost every case (greater than 90%), an individual must be a permanent resident in the United States (with no absence of greater than six months during that time) before applying for naturalization. Some exceptions apply for individuals who marry a United States citizen, individuals who have served in the armed forces or individuals married to members of the armed services.

To become a naturalized citizen of the United States of America, an individual must meet three significant requirements other than being a permanent resident for the specified number of years. An applicant for U.S. citizenship must also demonstrate "good moral character," proficiency in English and basic civics knowledge and an attachment to the United States Constitution.

Good Moral Character

An applicant might be deemed to lack good moral character if he or she has:

English and Civics United States naturalization laws require that an applicant for citizenship have "an understanding of the English language, including an ability to read, write and speak" in ordinary, commonly used English. The individual must also possess a "knowledge and understanding of the fundamentals of the history, and of the principles and form of government, of the United States."

To meet these requirements, applicants are interviewed by an Immigration and Naturalization Services officer and tested for their proficiency in English and civics. The following are examples of questions applicants are commonly asked:

Try the Immigration & Naturalization Service's "Naturalization Self-Test" to see if you would qualify to be a citizen!

Attachment to the Constitution

An individual wishing to become a naturalized citizen of the United States of America must demonstrate his or her willingness to defend and uphold the United States Constitution. To demonstrate one's attachment to the Constitution, an applicant must renounce foreign allegiances and swear an oath of allegiance to the Constitution. The Oath reads:

I hereby declare, on oath,
that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of who or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen;
that I will support and defend the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic;
that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same;
that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law;
that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law;
that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and
that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.

3. PASSAGE of a "PRIVATE LAW"

The Congress, on occasion, chooses to circumvent it's "uniform rule of naturalization" and grant citizenship to an individual or group of individuals. For example, the current Senate legislation aimed at extending citizenship to Elian Gonzalez reads:

Notwithstanding section 337(a) or any other provision of title III of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 U.S.C. 1401 et seq.), Elian Gonzalez-Brotons shall be considered to be a naturalized citizen of the United States as of the date of enactment of this Act and shall be furnished by the Attorney General with a certificate of naturalization. 

Legislative acts granting individuals citizenship are "private laws," rather than public laws, because they pertain only to particular individuals and not to the public generally.

Additional Resources

U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS)
U.S. History 1600 - 1978 Study Guide (Adobe Acrobat Reader Document)
U.S. Government Structure Study Guide (Adobe Acrobat Reader Document)