What's The Difference Between Citizenship & Permanent Residency? There's A Big Distinction
In late June 2019, the Supreme Court blocked a question about citizenship from being added to the 2020 census. This ruling prompted President Donald Trump to threaten executive action in order to include the citizenship question, though he ultimately dropped it on July 11 following significant legal hurdles. Before he backed away from the question, however, legal experts warned the Trump administration that anybody who isn't a citizen, including permanent residents, might be worried about responding truthfully to a census citizenship question. But what's the difference between citizenship and permanent residency? American citizenship comes with a number of unique privileges.
While the immigration debate has focused heavily on undocumented immigrants, there are more immigrant classifications than just "undocumented immigrant" and "citizen." People might come to the U.S. with other temporary immigration statuses, such as via student or work visas. There are also short-term visas available for professional athletes, professors on exchange from foreign universities, and temporary workers in a variety of fields.
But for many immigrants to the United States who plan to live in the country long-term, documented permanent residency is one of the most common pathways to citizenship. To obtain permanent residency — or a green card, as it is informally known — immigrants have to demonstrate their eligibility. An immigrant might be eligible for green card status through their employment or through family. Immigrants that qualify for refugee status, as well as those who have been victims of human trafficking and other crimes, may also be eligible for permanent residency. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has a full list of eligibility criteria on its website.
The green card application process is extensive. It requires filing a I-485 application to adjust immigration status, attending a biometrics appointment and undergoing a status interview, and in Washington, D.C., the USCIS estimates that application processing for permanent residency could take anywhere from 11 to 26 months.
Like citizens, permanent residents are entitled to certain rights. They have a right to permanently live and work in the U.S., and they can petition the American government on behalf of close family members who want to join them in the country. However, permanent residents of the U.S. are still citizens of another country, so they are not afforded all the same rights that American citizens are. Green card holders are only permitted to apply for American citizenship after being permanent residents for at least five years.
One of the biggest differences between American citizens and permanent residents is that the latter are not permitted to vote. If a green card holder votes or registers to vote in a U.S. election, they can be prosecuted and may even be prevented from pursuing citizenship. This is an aspect of American immigration policy that the Trump administration has tried to capitalize on. Earlier this year, Trump alleged — without any evidence — that 58,000 non-citizens had voted in Texas, and that 95,000 non-citizens were registered to vote in the state. Trump further alleged that "voter fraud is rampant" across the country. Elite Daily reached out to the White House for comment on the claims, but did not immediately hear back.
PolitiFact debunked Trump's allegations, noting that the president had misconstrued information from the Texas Secretary of State. However, Trump's routine claims about non-citizens voting, coupled with his recent insistence on including a citizenship question in the 2020 census, has many activists concerned that he is going after all immigrants, both documented and undocumented. However, The New York Times reported on July 11 that Trump would be abandoning his pursuit of the census question in favor of gathering citizenship data from existing federal records.
According to Vox, this is the question that Trump wanted to put on the 2020 census: "Is this person a citizen of the United States?" Any person who responded to this census would, in theory, only be able to select "yes" or "no" if such a question were implemented, though it seems like it may not be. That means that anybody who is not a citizen — including permanent residents, refugees seeking asylum, and undocumented immigrants — would have had to answer "no," and could potentially face increased scrutiny from immigration officials.
While a permanent resident has numerous rights and privileges not afforded to other immigrants, they are still not citizens. And in the case of a potential census citizenship question, that distinction matters.