Marriage to a U.S. citizen is one way for an immigrant to secure citizenship, but it’s not as easy and straightforward as many people think. First, the foreign spouse must meet several qualifications. For instance, the spouse must be able to speak English, and must have been a lawfully admitted permanent resident of the United States for at least three years.
The spouse must have been physically present in the United States for at least 18 months of those three years. Further, the spouse must stay in the United States from the day they submit their application through the date they become a naturalized citizen. The process is not quick in the best of times, and the USCIS has been backlogged with cases in recent years, significantly slowing down processing times.
The “place of celebration rule”
Even if the spouse meets the qualifications, before U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will consider granting citizenship, it must determine if the marriage is valid. The standard it uses is known as the “place-of-celebration rule.” Generally, this means the marriage must have been legal according to the law of the jurisdiction where it was performed. If the marriage took place in Michigan or another American state, it must have been valid under American law. If it took place in another country, it must have been legal under that country’s law.
Most of the time, an official marriage certificate from the place of celebration is evidence enough to satisfy that requirement. However, the USCIS will not recognize certain types of marriages that are not legal under American laws, such as polygamous marriages, or that violate strong public policies of the state where the couple currently lives. Importantly, the USCIS will not recognize a marriage if it determines that the parties got married simply to get around U.S. immigration law.
Since 2013, same-sex marriage has been legal throughout the United States, but the “place-of-celebration rule” could be a problem for same-sex couples who were married at a time and in a place where same-sex marriage was not legally recognized.
There are many other requirements and checkpoints along the way before a spouse can gain citizenship through marriage. A good immigration attorney can guide couples through the process and advocate for them if they must argue their case with the USCIS.