Many immigrants live for years or decades as legal permanent residents (LPR). LPRs or "green card" holders are able to live and work in the U.S. virtually without restriction, and are eligible for many benefits. From day to day, life for an LPR may seem no different from the life of a citizen. However, besides personal benefits, citizenship can make a big difference to family and community, and it is also the only truly "permanent" status available.
If you are eligible to become a citizen, here are some of the benefits you would realize:
1. Freedom to travel and even live overseas without the worry of falling out of status: As an LPR, if you spend too much time outside the United States, the government may determine that you have abandoned your residence in this country, and revoke or refuse to renew your green card. As a citizen, you can come and go and live anywhere in the world without losing your status as a U.S. Citizen. Furthermore, outside the country you can call on the U.S. Embassy for protection and assistance in time of need.* As a U.S. Citizen, you can even convey this citizenship to your children born overseas, with some restrictions.
2. Immigration benefits and protection for your family: When it comes to family-based visas, relatives of U.S. Citizens have preference over relatives of LPRs. Spouses of Citizens and children under age 21 have no wait for a visa at all. And when it comes to married sons and daughters or siblings, you must be a citizen to even petition for a visa for them. In the event that your spouse or parent might be in danger of removal from the U.S., as a U.S. Citizen you may be able to help them stay in the country if their leaving would cause you extreme hardship.
3. The right to vote and to hold elected office: This is an important right not just for the personal satisfaction of participating in democracy, but also on a community level. Voting districts are based on the census, which counts all people, not just citizens, yet only the citizens can vote. So in districts with a high population of non-citizens, voting citizens wield disproportionate power. Non-citizen immigrants may find their concerns falling on deaf ears due to lack of political power.
4. Security and stability. Immigration laws, restrictions on visas, and grounds of removability and inadmissibility are politically driven and subject to change. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has declared that "Citizenship is no light trifle to be jeopardized any moment Congress decides to do so..." Afroyim v. Rusk. U.S. 253, 1967 (267-268). Once you are a citizen you are a citizen for life with no more anxiety about maintaining status. Unless you are found to have fraudulently or illegally obtained citizenship to begin with, or you voluntarily and intentionally relinquish your U.S. Citizenship, you remain a citizen.
Of course, not every immigrant will be eligible for citizenship, and applying for citizenship will bring you under scrutiny of USCIS. Also, applying takes effort, time and money. So in the end this is a personal decision and one for which you might want to seek legal counsel.
For residents of Chicago and surrounding suburbs, there are a wealth of organizations providing free or low-cost citenship screening and preparation. A few that work here on the North Side are: Indo-American Center, Centro Romero, Chinese Mutual Aid Association, Korean American Resource and Cultural Center, and World Relief. To find citizenship classes near you, go to http://www.citizenshipworks.org/ or text "citizenship" to 877877.
*Except that if you are a dual citizen, the U.S. Embassy will not intervene in your other country of citizenship.