A Technical Question on Immigration Law

This post contains the details of a question that one of our Law Faculty, Daniel Kanstroom, posed to generative AI. I’ve pasted the original email below and only modified it slightly for formatting purposes here. You can find my observations and a detailed analysis below.

Original Email

Dear colleagues,

Apropos of our faculty discussion on Monday about AI, I decided to try Chat GPT on a technical legal question that I often use for my Immigration Law class. Please bear with me; it’s a bit technical. But I think the episode is interesting and revealing.

The question is this:

Your client, a US Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR), had been living with her USC spouse for three years prior to filing for naturalization last month. But now they are legally separated. Is she eligible to complete the naturalization process or must she re-file as a “5 year” applicant”?

[Editors Note: This background information was not originally provided in the prompt, more on that in my detailed review]

Background law: People must typically have 5 years in LPR status to naturalize unless they are living in “marital union” with a US citizen spouse, in which case the period is reduced to 3 years. So… is it 3 years before filing or until the whole process is complete?

The applicable regulation, 8 CFR 319, says the applicant must have:

“been living in marital union with the citizen spouse for the three years preceding the date of examination on the application.”

This could lead one to conclude that the separated person is NOT eligible (she has not yet been examined) and must wait as much as two more years as a noncitizen before being naturalized.

But the statute says: “Any person whose spouse is a citizen of the United States, … may be naturalized … if such person immediately preceding the date of filing his application … has been living in marital union with the citizen spouse …”

So it seems that the applicable statutory date is that of filing. The reg is incorrect and the client may go forward with her case. In fact the agency, USCIS, has admitted this in its Policy Manual:

USCIS follows the language of the statute in requiring living in marital union only up until the time of filing. Accordingly, only the existence of a legally valid marriage is required from the date of filing the application until the time of the applicant’s naturalization.

NB: the agency has not amended the reg. [But that’s another issue….]

Anyway, it’s a nice little research problem to introduce some basic administrative law concepts and to reinforce basic aspects of immigration law. I have found that this problem is rather difficult to research using Google, as it is complex linguistically and multi-faceted. I asked “classic” Chat GPT 3.5 (Open AI) to write a 250 word memo that answers the question. I got this:

To: [Client's Name]

From: [Your Name]

Date: [Date]

Subject: Naturalization Eligibility for a US Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR) in Light of Legal Separation

Dear [Client's Name],

I hope this memo finds you well. You inquired about your eligibility to complete the naturalization process as a US Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR) after living with your USC spouse for three years before filing, despite your current legal separation. Based on the information provided, here is the analysis:

Under normal circumstances, a spouse of a US citizen (USC) who has been a US LPR for at least three years and has lived in marital union with the USC spouse for those three years is eligible to apply for naturalization. However, if the marital union ceases due to divorce or separation before the naturalization process is completed, USCIS may consider the LPR ineligible under the "3-year" rule.

In your case, as you are now legally separated from your USC spouse, you may not be eligible to complete the naturalization process under the "3-year" rule. Instead, you may need to re-file as a "5-year" applicant. This means you will need to wait until you have been a US LPR for a total of five years, counting from the date of your initial LPR status.

Please consult an immigration attorney to discuss the specific circumstances of your separation and any possible exceptions or waivers that may apply to your case. They can provide guidance on the best course of action to pursue naturalization.

If you have any further questions or need assistance with your immigration matters, please do not hesitate to reach out to me.


[Your Name] [Your Title] [Contact Information]

THIS IS AT BEST MISLEADING AND ACTUALLY PRETTY CLEARLY WRONG! If a student, intern or associate gave it to me, I would not be happy…

By the way, I also tried this with Chat GPT/Bing. The first thing that popped up was non-responsive and misleading:

“Therefore, you would have to wait until either after three years of LPR status during which your spouse was a citizen for at least three years OR you have accrued five years of LPR status, whichever is shorter." (cite to a law firm) 

But after that, it did link to USCIS manuals and some other law firm sites that alluded to the right answer, but one would have to dig. So the use of a language search probably made the results marginally more precise.

I welcome your thoughts, critiques, corrections and suggestions. The good news, I suppose, is that we human law teachers and lawyers are not irrelevant quite yet….

Prompt Review and Observations

I really appreciate that our community is willing to share exchanges such as this! Especially ones around such a complex topic which can easily throw off students and AI alike. This topic warrants a detailed explanation and I appreciate everyone’s engagement in the insights shared. I of course welcome any thoughts and further discussion.

While AI offers great promise in many areas, certain applications, as seen here, will require human intervention at various steps. I spoke with this professor and learned that he was first attempting to see whether or not ChatGPT could answer the question without additional context. I think this is one of those situations where if you want it to be accurate you’re better off supplying the information you want it to include. Which is good news for the legal profession and many others! 

Here are some of my other observations:

Prompt Design and Context

The success of AI in delivering precise answers is largely influenced by the prompt’s design. I thought your prompt had a few elements that set you up for success early on. Whether intentional or not, the specificity in your question, “your client” and “write a 250-word memo”, directed the AI’s response to give an output that leaned towards that of someone with legal expertise. I am currently developing a resource to further assist in crafting effective prompts for AI tools. This will be especially helpful when you need to steer the tone or language used in the desired response. Stay tuned for that soon.

What AI’s Good (and Not So Good) At

Your problem is a great showcase to learn in the open. It exemplifies both the strengths and limitations of AI in legal reasoning. A case in point is its inability to combine legal reasoning with the latest and most relevant substantive knowledge when dissecting complex issues. Maybe we don’t lean on it for the task on whole, but for smaller tasks like summarizing, framing information, or completing a draft with accurate and relevant details.  

Think of AI as a Virtual Assistant

Instead of viewing AI tools as repositories of substantive knowledge, it’s more beneficial to see them as virtual co-pilots. They excel in certain tasks when supplied with adequate information. When complex reasoning or potentially misleading legal information might trip up a response it’s better to do the work first as the legal professional then supply the correct information as context to complete other tasks along the way.

Practical Application

Here’s a link to my modified version of the same chat. I decided to use ChatGPT as a tool for crafting the memo in a professional tone using the background you provided in your email as additional context. With specific roles, memo criteria, and a directive to think “step by step”, the AI produced a much better memo. Karen Breda, one of our legal information librarians, graciously agreed to assist in verifying the results, highlighting areas of improvement, particularly around the pivotal questions of eligibility. She noted that the first crucial question that ChatGPT asked itself could have been improved but was okay.

A Different Perspective

I then explored the possibility of approaching AI as a novice seeking guidance. While the AI’s response was informative, Karen noted the omission of crucial details, which was addressed in a follow-up interaction. You can read the entire interaction from the link provided earlier.

AI as a Teaching Tool

Ultimately this is a good example to learn from. If you wanted to use this in a classroom context, one recommendation could be to pose the question to the class and then initiate a discussion on the AI’s response. This can segue into the importance of identifying and verifying relevant information, with the AI serving as a springboard for research direction.

I believe that AI tools, while powerful, still require human expertise to navigate the complexities of the legal field. Their efficacy can be greatly enhanced through careful prompting, background provision, and a clear understanding of their capabilities.

I hope more of you share examples and experiments such as this so we can learn together! You can fill out this Google Form to capture prompt examples such as this where I can offer a more detailed analysis along with recommendations for using it in the classroom.