Posted by Debbie McGoldrick at 4/29/2009 11:19 AM EDT

Q: My cousin lived in Massachusetts for many years in the 1960s She paid taxes and got married. Although she qualified for being a U.S. citizen she never signed the papers. Is it too late for her to sign the papers to become a U.S. citizen? Her daughters want to come here and work legally. If their mom is a U.S. citizen could they file paperwork too?”
A: Your cousin who lived here in the 1960s is not a U.S. citizen and, from the information you’ve provided, has no claim on U.S. citizenship, even though she lived here for several years and complied with tax laws. Therefore, her daughters also have no entitlement to U.S. citizenship.

U.S. citizens who come to the country must maintain a primary residence here, apply for naturalization, pass a U.S. civics test and personal interview, and be sworn in.

These requirements would have also been in place in the 1960s, and unless your cousin met all of them, the years she lived here would count for nothing now.

This is not an uncommon story. The Irish have always been among the slowest of nationalities to convert permanent legal status to that of naturalized American citizen.

This column has received letters in the past from people like your cousin who lived here long-term and would have been absolutely eligible for citizenship if they took the time to apply.

But they left without citizenship, and without using safeguards to protect their legal status for a temporary period of time in the event things didn’t work out at home and they wanted to return here.

Those people, unfortunately, would basically be starting from scratch, having to secure legal status all over again – a daunting and oftentimes impossible task.

There’s just one thing in your letter – you say that your cousin got married. Did she marry an American citizen, or a foreigner?

We’re assuming the latter, but if she married an American her daughters would very likely have a claim to U.S. citizenship.