By ROSE L. THAYER • STARS AND STRIPES • May 12, 2023
The requirement to live in a state for more than 90 days before applying for citizenship could be waived for military spouses under a new bill introduced Friday by House lawmakers.
Reps. Marilyn Strickland, D-Wash., and Maria Salazar, R-Fla., filed legislation called the Ensuring Security for Military Spouses Act of 2023 after learning about a spouse in Washington state whose application was denied because of the rule, which is part of Immigration and Nationality Act.
“Military spouses are the backbone of our nation’s military, serving the nation right alongside our service members,” Strickland said in a statement. “In order to ensure national security, address recruitment and retention issues, and maintain readiness, we must support green-card-holding military spouses who want to become citizens.”
Service members are already exempt from the rule, and it does not apply to spouses living with service members outside of the United States. Lifting the requirement for foreign-born spouses living in the U.S. creates parity, Strickland’s office said.
Lydiah Owiti, who is married to an Army retiree, said military spouses often move more than their service member because they will go back home to be with family during deployments. When she first arrived in the U.S. from Kenya in 2012, she recalled wanting to live close to her brother in another state while her husband was deployed to Kuwait.
“I wanted to be with him to feel like I have somebody who I know, something about me that I can relate to, [who] I can share a meal with and I can laugh with because I don’t want to be alone,” Owiti said.
The bill, which has the support of the National Immigration Forum and Minority Veterans of America, does not change the three-year minimum requirement for spouses of U.S. citizens to maintain legal permanent residence before applying for citizenship, according to Strickland’s office.
Owiti said the three-year wait feels long enough without the possibility of an additional three months, particularly when it comes to employment. Unemployment for foreign-born military spouses is more than 40%, which is double the percentage for military spouses overall, said Owiti, who is now a fellow with Blue Star Families, a military family advocacy nonprofit.
She has been raising awareness about the challenges that foreign-born spouses face and the impact those issues can have on recruiting and retention. Citizenship is a huge barrier to finding a job because it is required for government or contractor work at military bases.
“Any change that shortens the amount of time for a foreign-born military spouse to get their citizenship is more than welcome,” she said. “You don’t know within those 90 days what can change because things change so fast in the military.”
Margaret Stock, an immigration attorney and retired Army Reserve lieutenant colonel who has worked extensively on military cases, said making the change for spouses would be consistent with past efforts to ease the burdens of moving with their service member every two to three years.
The Military Spouse Residency Relief Act passed in 2009 and allowed military spouses to maintain legal residence in the state where they lived before a change in duty station – something already afforded service members. This eased spouses’ ability to vote, file taxes and maintain a valid driver license.
“[The congresswomen] would be bringing the immigration laws in line with this other law Congress passed,” Stock said. “Congress has been trying to make it easier for military spouses so they don’t get all hung up on having to change the residence every time their spouse gets stationed somewhere because the military member isn’t affected by it.”
Salazar said military spouses should not be penalized for these moves, which are beyond their control.
“Our active-duty service members and their families make an enormous sacrifice to keep us safe,” she said in a statement. “This bill ensures fairness for the spouses of service [members] seeking U.S. citizenship by updating state residency requirements for green-card holders.”
Those who would primarily benefit from the change would be people applying for naturalization without the help of a lawyer, Stock said. The forms are not clear about the 90-day requirement, but an attorney would screen clients and advise them to wait until they meet the criteria.
There is no penalty for moving to a new state after filing the form, so she said she does think the impact of the rule-change would be small but important.
When someone’s application is denied for missing the state-residency requirement, they do not get the $750 application fee refunded, Stock said.
“It’s a pretty outdated law,” she said. “A long time ago, it was hard for the government to do background checks on people, and you have to show good character to become a U.S. citizen. So they have this 90-day requirement on the theory that people aren’t going to know who you are if you just moved into the state.”
However, technology has improved background checks, Stock said.
Owiti said even a small change is important.
“Any step that raises awareness and brings the attention of anyone to any of these issues, I’ll take it,” she said.