Citizenship Via Grandparents

Citizenship via Grandparents

Israeli Parents Make Use
Of U.S. Clause That Lets
Kids Become Americans

October 16, 2007; Page A6

A swelling number of Israelis are flying to the U.S., armed with tattered U.S. high school diplomas and faded marriage certificates, to try to tap into an obscure clause in U.S. immigration law that enables some grandparents to pass citizenship to their grandchildren.

For decades, U.S. citizenship could only be transmitted to a child by a parent. But 1994's section 322 of immigration law has provided another way in, and Israelis are taking advantage of it.

The Trend: Israelis of U.S. ancestry are using an obscure U.S. immigration clause to secure citizenship for their children through their grandparents.
Behind the Trend: Though U.S. citizens anywhere may be eligible, in Israel, businesses that help people apply are flourishing.
The Motive: Among other benefits, some Israelis see U.S. citizenship as a possible haven from Mideast tension.

“I am not quite sure how this group of people caught onto this section of law, but they all seem to know about it,” says Michelle Tolbert, an officer in the Chicago branch of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that processes applications.

Being born in the U.S. or having U.S. citizenship doesn't automatically qualify parents to pass on citizenship to their children born overseas. A parent must have lived in the U.S. for five years after the age of 14 to transmit citizenship to a child. The clause allows U.S.-citizen grandparents who satisfy this requirement to pass on citizenship to children whose parents didn't live in the U.S. long enough.

In the first nine months of the 2006-2007 fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, 2006, the U.S. immigration agency processed nearly 4,000 applications for citizenship through grandparents, compared with about 2,000 for all of fiscal 2003-2004. Parents of any nationality can avail themselves of the law, but Israelis comprise 90% of those taking advantage of it, Ms. Tolbert estimates.

Some of those Israelis are seeking to give their descendants a safe haven from Mideast strife. “The world keeps changing,” says Amy Katz, who recently flew to Chicago with her toddler and 3-month-old daughters to secure U.S. citizenship for them. “There could be a horrible war. There could be no Israel one day.”

Sandra and Neale Katz immigrated to Israel with their family in 1972. Their daughters, Amy, 39 years old, and Nancy, 42, were born in the U.S., but couldn't pass on their U.S. citizenship to their own children because they left the country when they were very young.

So Amy's and Nancy's children derived citizenship through their grandmother. Sandra Katz gathered her birth certificate, University of Iowa diploma, marriage certificate and other documents to build the case for citizenship.

For many immigrants, the process of becoming a U.S. citizen can be a protracted bureaucratic nightmare. In this case, the Immigration Agency's Web site notes that the process is designed for families to make a “one-stop” visit to the U.S.

On Oct. 1, Mrs. Katz, her daughters and 2-year-old, 1-year-old and three-month-old granddaughters, arrived into Ms. Tolbert's office for an appointment arranged by email. “It took 10 or 15 minutes for the girls to become Americans,” marvels Mrs. Katz.

In June alone, Ms. Tolbert turned 270 Israeli minors — they can't have turned 18 — into U.S. citizens, thanks to their grandparents. A year ago, the Chicago-based immigration official had handled only six such cases.

“This gives my daughters more options in life,” says Amy Katz, who says her U.S. passport enabled her to see Jordan before Israelis could travel there. “They may want to study in the States.”

In Israel, home-based businesses are flourishing to cope with the demand. “It's a fever,” says Debra Flegg, a Jerusalem resident who has helped hundreds of families fill out the paperwork — she charges $250 to $350 — after helping her own grandchildren get U.S. citizenship. “If this continues, I will have to set up a real office,” she says.

“I don't need to advertise,” says Tikva Burkis, who runs a similar home business in the town of Lod. “It's all by word of mouth. One family does it and soon the whole neighborhood is applying.”

In addition to Chicago, Mrs. Burkis books families at immigration offices in places like Manchester, N.H., and Buffalo, N.Y., where officers have a reputation for being accommodating to families.

In July, Israel-born Daniel Robin, 38, who had derived U.S. citizenship from his parents and never lived in the U.S., brought his four children to the Chicago immigration office. “Everybody has been talking about this and doing it,” says Mr. Robin, a statistician who lives in the town of Beit Shemesh, which is populated by many descendants of Americans.

“Everybody who can is applying,” says his mother, Yecheved Robin. “It's like the Roman Empire and citizenship. Everybody would like to be a citizen of the United States if they can.”

Write to Miriam Jordan at