The Not-So Golden Road to Citizenship

Mario Sarceno is an immigrant who is living what most dream about when they touch U.S soil. He has a large home and family, a successful career and peace of mind. Yet it was only three years ago that some of these options became available to him when he became a citizen of the United States.

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It took him 15 years, 6,000 dollars, a lawyer and a couple of court appearances, but now he basks in the privileges that come with being an American citizen. The road wasn’t easy, he says, speaking of the time and effort he expended. And there is still more to go with my wife, who is also trying to become a citizen. For the Villaruel family, it has been a long process. Both Lucio and Pily Villarruel are residents and are currently waiting for the ability to apply for citizenship. The differences in their cases has made it difficult to go through the citizenship process, as both are undocumented immigrants. Though they have been more than willing to work and pay for the lawyer, forms and other fees, they mention that most immigrants do not have enough resources to be able to afford such things. We have been blessed, Pily remarks. But others do not have as much and cannot even begin to talk to a lawyer about their case.

This is the case for most people when it comes down to starting the process to become an American citizen. From amnesty to building a wall on the border, immigration reform has been nothing short of a highly debated topic in Congress. For the past ten years, proposals have been given and rejected, one after another. Most recently, President Donald Trump has been advocating for a wall to be built on the border between the U.S and Mexico, a wall that he claims as the only solution to this problem. (CITE THIS) There could not be more dissension among Congress members in how to deal with the 11 million people who reside undocumented inside the U.S borders.(CITE THIS) In February of 2018, because Congress could not come to a consensus, the government shut down for three days. (CITE THIS) Yet, while they argue and dissent, there are still people who are doing their best to become citizens within the system that has already been established in America. What it comes down to, though, is that this process is expensive, academically unbalanced and, at times. inflexible. When policies in the U.S change, so should the citizenship process. No reform will be able to completely stand on its feet if the process to become a citizen is too difficult or too precarious a situation for undocumented immigrants to even begin. While for some, the solution is to throw these unwanted individuals out, there are several things we can do in helping those who have been part of American society for years and who have established families here.

The typical process begins with applying for residency. According to the U.S Citizenship and Immigration services, any immigrant who wants to be a citizen must first apply for residency. If granted, the stipulations for residency is to stay in the U.S for a period of five years, with no extended vacations outside of the country during that period of time. Then, they may apply for citizenship, which includes a biometrics, or medical, appointment, an interview and an English and Civics test before the application may be submitted. This process can also last for about five years. If granted, the applicant moves on to take the oath of allegiance and becomes a U.S citizen at a naturalization ceremony. If denied, an applicant may also appeal the decision within 30 days before it is finalized. (CITE THIS) This may seem to be a simple process and for some, it is. Yet, for those who are not literate in legal matters and those who struggle with English and have very little education, this can be a difficult process. For example, an application can be denied if the applicant fails one or both parts of the exam. Individuals are allowed to retake it once, but if failed twice, the application is denied. (CITE THIS) Another difficulty presented can be the forms themselves. While some applicants may be able to speak English, many do not know how to read or write it. About 33% of the U.S population do not speak English as their first language. (CITE THIS)

The jargon of the paperwork can be difficult to understand and if there is a mistake in filing or in the information present on the forms, there could be legal consequences. There is also a chance of being denied and so the money paid out of pocket would be in vain. Many immigrants stay undocumented because of that fear.Some exceptions are given in wake of these difficulties, if the applicant qualifies for them. For example, an applicant over the age of 50 with a residency of 20 years is allowed to take the English and Civic exam in their native language with a translator who is fluent in both English and the applicant’s native language. Those who are 55 and older and have been residents for 15 years are also given this consideration. While this is a thoughtful measure, this does not apply even if you meet the age stipulation but not the residency requirement. This also means that any U.S graduated high school students, who would have already learned U.S history in school would have to take the test. Because the exam is supposed to test the applicant’s English and their knowledge of U.S history, it would seem unnecessary for them to have to take it.

Instead, if those applicants could prove that they had graduated from a U.S high school, they could bypass the test. This would leave more room for others to take the exam and could potentially reduce the overarching costs of administering the exam,What is not mentioned in this process are the fees that accompany the applications. For example, the application for residency, according to USCIS website, can go up to $1,140 and is a minimum $985 dollars. To apply for naturalization, the fee is about $595-$640. The addition of a lawyer jolts the total cost to about $5,000 and $12,000. The fees are not set and depend on the complexity of your case and if the applicant files on their own or with a lawyer. Unfortunately, with many immigrants living under the poverty level, this can be a deterrent for anyone trying to apply for citizenship. A clear example of this deterrent happened when the fees changed in 2007. 1.4 million applications were submitted that year, the highest number occurring before the fee change. Compared to the 500,000 applicants the year after that, we can see that price swayed many people to apply before it became even higher.(CITE THIS)Some solutions have been proposed, such as waivers, that cut the price of the fees in half. These waivers are only available to those who are below the federal poverty level, but someone who is earning $24,000 a year, which is just over the poverty level, would have to pay full price for any and all fees. Some would say the fees are high due to the fact that the United States Center of Immigration is mostly funded by the money collected from processing the forms. The cost of forms is also affected by the populations that are not required to pay fees, such as refugees. This could be rectified, and the prices lowered, if there were other ways to fund this agency such as government grants or perhaps donations from other organizations that are affiliated with them.

Another difficult aspect is time. For the average applicant, it takes about 5-10 years to be able to complete the full process and get to the naturalization ceremony. (CITE THIS) This wait can be made longer due to processing issues, lack of funds, or other preventative life events. (CITE THIS) While the longevity of the process may be a precaution for security reasons, it is easy for an undocumented immigrant to see this as another hurdle, because there is a possibility that they will be denied. The denial, in their eyes, would mean that their hard work and money have gone to waste. Many applicants also have families that depend on them for economic stability. Approximately 18 million children under the age of 18 in the U.S have or live with at least one immigrant parent. (CITE THIS) A denial could mean deportation and separation from their families, which could cause emotional distress and upheaval for the children, if any, that are involved. Many of these children are born in the U.S, which would make transitioning to another country, if they decided to relocate with their immigrant parent, difficult. For these immigrant parents and their children, these are fears that they have to live with every day. Yet, even so, there are many who attempt it. The dream of becoming an American citizen is enough to draw these people to pay anything to be able to enjoy the rights that every citizen of the United States of America has.

Policy changes can also affect who can or cannot apply for naturalization. Because immigration has become such a political upheaval, both republicans and democrats have different ideas on how to deal with this issue and who can apply. This divide caused the initiation of DACA (Deferred action for children arrivals) by former President Barack Obama and it’s current termination by President Donald Trump. DACA stands as an example of how policy changes can affect immigrants and their ability to acquire legal papers in this country. This program was effected on June 15, 2012, as an executive order, it would allow those immigrants who had arrived in the U.S before the age of 16 and were as of than younger than 31, the ability to have temporary legal status and be relieved from the threat of deportation. At the time, a large portion of immigrants, about 1.7 million people, became eligible for this program. (CITE THIS) The program would require them to renew their petition every two years, which many immigrants were more than willing to do. In return, these Dreamers as they are called, would receive a social security number and a work permit. Many of them would be able to receive a higher education and other opportunities that were previously denied. They believed that through time, they might be allowed to apply for naturalization.

The pitfall of this program was how temporary it would end up being. While this was an executive action backed by several supporters in the Obama administration, many Congress members, who were mostly Republican for President Obama’s second term, raised their voices against it. They encouraged states to file federal lawsuits against the executive order, claiming that it was unconstitutional. (CITE THIS) More recently, in September of 2017, President Trump announced that he would be ending this program and would be taking the next six months to phase it out. This left as many as many as 800,000 Dreamers in danger of deportation. For five years, the program functioned to bring stability to the lives of these immigrants, many who are young adults. They had come out of the dark and trusted the only government they have ever known, only to have the proverbial rug pulled from under them. While many lament the program’s end, the true solution for these Dreamers and for other immigrants just like them is for a more permanent solution to be passed through legislation as part of a broader immigration policy. Programs like DACA, at best, are only a temporary fix and subject to change by other presidential administrations that do not believe in its value. The narrow scope of who can apply to this type of program is also something that could change in a immigration policy. Coupled with a more accessible and affordable naturalization process, it could change the lives of many immigrant families.

There are politicians and other prominent members of society that would argue that there is a disadvantage to letting so many immigrants be able to naturalize. They claim that that supporters of this type of reform are looking out for the needs of foreigners over the needs of Americans but the reality is that undocumented immigrants could be a great asset to the U.S Some incentive for changes to made can be seen in a recent study that showed the economical boosts that would be be available if all existing eligible immigrants became citizens, acquired jobs and could be subject to taxes. According to the Urban Institute in New York in a research study conducted in 2015, not only would the individual annual earnings increase for these immigrants, but it would also increase the employment rate and homeownership rates. Tax revenues alone would raise a whopping 2.3 billion dollars in 21 cities if naturalized and a specific study in New York City showed that government cost of public benefits, like SNAP or TANF, would decrease as well.

While this is the first study to demonstrate how naturalization can be related to government-funded programs, it is still a strong indicator of the economic benefit immigrants could provide. This great nation was built on hard working immigrants who sailed overseas, walked on foot and travailed many difficulties to live in a land of plenty and give their children the opportunity to lead better lives. The same dream still exists within the heart of every American but also the immigrants who sacrifice so much to come to a place they have only ever heard of, a place where they believe will provide more opportunities to their family members and where they could live in safety. Instead of trying to keep these people out, we should welcome them with open arms and provide a path that they can more easily become like us and benefit from the benefits we so often take for granted.

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