Citizenship by Birth
There are three main pathways to citizenship by birth in the United States. The first applies to anyone born on American soil; these individuals are automatically citizens barring certain rare limitations. The second applies to anyone born to a United States citizen overseas; these individuals will go through a process known as "acquisition of citizenship." The third applies to anyone born to foreign parents who become naturalized while the citizenship seeker was still a child; these individuals will go through a process known as "derivation of citizenship."
When You Are Born on United States Soil
Those born on United States soil (except for the children of foreign diplomats and other types of foreign government officials) are automatically citizens of the United States. The citizenship granted by being born on U.S. soil is lifelong, unless you formally file an oath to renounce that citizenship.
In some cases, people who want to become United States citizens are unaware that they are already citizens. For example, it is not uncommon for a person who was born on U.S. soil, but grew up overseas, to believe that he or she has lost his or her U.S. citizenship status, but this would not be true. For an immigration law attorney, someone in this situation is the best kind of client to stumble upon, and it happens more often than you might believe.
When You Are Born to a U.S. Citizen
Those who are born to one or more U.S. citizens can automatically have United States citizenship through a process known as "acquisition." It does not matter if you were born inside America or in one of its territories. As a U.S. citizen, your children will also acquire citizenship when they are born.
The laws that apply to citizenship by acquisition are complicated and Congress has changed and revised them throughout history. For example, depending on when you were born, an out-of-wedlock birth and the citizenship of both parents could be factors that affect your citizenship status. The last time acquisition of citizenship laws were changed was in November 1986. Before that, key dates that could affect your acquisition of citizenship process occurred in 1952, 1941 and 1934.
It is not uncommon for individuals, who were born to U.S. parents, to not know that they can qualify for U.S. citizenship. In many cases, people whose grandparents were U.S. citizens can also qualify.
Derivation of Citizenship Through Naturalized Parents
If a child is under 18 years of age, has a Green Card, and has parents who have become naturalized U.S. citizens, then the child can usually become a citizen as well. The child must be living with the naturalized parent if he or she wants to benefit from derivation of citizenship laws. Unlike the naturalized parents, though, children who qualify for derivation of citizenship will not be required to apply for or pass naturalization tests.
Just like the laws relating to acquisition of citizenship, the laws pertaining to derivation of citizenship have changed over the years and it is important to look at the date your parents were naturalized to determine eligibility. Important dates of rule changes pertaining to derivation of citizenship occurred in the years 2001, 1978, 1952, 1941 and 1934.
Interestingly, there are many young Green Card holders living in the United States right now, who are unaware that they automatically gain citizenship when their parents become naturalized.
Getting Help with Citizenship by Birth Issues
Because citizenship by birth laws changed so many times over the years, you may wish to discuss the details of your birth, and the citizenship status of your parents, with a qualified immigration law attorney. Prior to filing any kind of paperwork to claim your citizenship, it could be beneficial to confirm your legal rights and options with an expert who is both familiar with the law, and with someone who is familiar with common questions and concerns held by those seeking United States citizenship.