USA Today: The Road to Citizenship Can Take a Generation

Copyright 2006 Gannett Company, Inc.
All Rights Reserved USA TODAY
May 16, 2006 Tuesday
*LENGTH:* 1631 words
*HEADLINE:* For legal immigrants, wait can be daunting;
The road to citizenship can take a generation
*BYLINE:* Kathy Kiely
WASHINGTON — Clutching a small American flag as she posed for a photo, Maria Montenegro wore the fatigued but satisfied smile of someone who had just completed a marathon. In a sense, she had.
Montenegro, 59, also was holding a piece of paper: a citizenship certificate that she and 24 other newly minted Americans had just obtained in a naturalization ceremony on the National Mall. Asked how long she had been waiting for the moment, the Mexican-born housekeeper said, “Thirty years.”
In Emma Lazarus’ poem on the Statue of Liberty, the nation’s famous gateway is described as a “golden door.” But it isn’t open to everyone, and its hinges can be slow and squeaky for many. Becoming an American is a process that means waiting, sometimes for decades: first, for a visa to live in the USA and, then, to become a citizen.
Congress is debating how to stop illegal immigration, and President Bush wants the National Guard on the border. But some immigrant rights advocates say the solution is to allow more people to immigrate and to speed up the process. They say the lengthy wait faced by those who want to move here legally only encourages others to jump the line — as an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants have done already.
“We really need to fine-tune this system and make it so everybody who is willing to be legal can be legal,” says Nancy Jane Shestack, director of Hogar Hispano, an immigrant assistance center operated by the Catholic Diocese of Arlington, Va., in suburban Washington. “Right now, nobody but a saint could follow these rules.”
Legal immigration is open only to those who qualify because of family connections, job skills, fear of political persecution or the luck of the State Department’s annual visa lottery. And it can be pricey on a limited budget — application fees for immigration and citizenship can run over $600.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., says a Senate plan to eventually grant citizenship to millions of illegal immigrants already in the USA doesn’t reward lawbreakers. He notes that they would have to be in the USA as long as 16 years to qualify. Many who come to the USA legally wait much longer.
“The best way to answer how long it takes is, ‘It depends,'” says Emilio Gonzalez, director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. It depends on preference categories and country quotas that Congresses and presidents have established over the years.
Spouses of U.S. citizens, as well as parents and children under 21, are granted immediate entry. Everyone else goes to the end of lines that vary in length according to country, the prospective immigrant’s relationship to the U.S. sponsor and profession. According to the State Department, experienced laborers from India face a five-year wait for a visa, while Filipino siblings of Americans wait more than 22 years. Gonzalez, a Cuban refugee who became a citizen at age 9, calls the system “needlessly complex” but adds, “That’s the hand we drew.”
Last year, America welcomed 946,142 legal immigrants. The record, set in 1991, was 1.8 million. But the number of immigrants applying for citizenship is rising.
Immigration officials expect to swear in 685,000 new citizens by Sept. 30, up 12% from last year. “I think the immigration debates right now are spurring a lot of people into saying, ‘I want a voice. And I want to be part of the debate.’ The best way to do that is to become a citizen,” Gonzalez says.
Today’s immigrants are more diverse than those who came to the USA before 1965, when Congress scrapped a quota system that favored northern and western Europeans at the expense of other parts of the world.
At Montenegro’s citizenship ceremony earlier this month, 19 nations were represented. Mary Gyimah, 47, wore the colors of her native Ghana in her feathered hat. Sadiqua Virk wore the head scarf favored by women in her native Pakistan. Yitong Ma, a computer scientist from China, wore a tie adorned with an American eagle.
Foreigners who want to immigrate to the USA have a limited number of routes: Most are sponsored by a relative (who must be either a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident) or an employer. The only immigrants allowed into the country without a sponsor are refugees, asylum seekers or the 50,000 people annually who win the State Department’s visa lottery. Marta Johnson, 63, a Tucson resident who became an American in 1987 after marrying a U.S. citizen, applied for her 40-year-old son, Miguel, to emigrate from her native Chile five years ago. She says immigration officials have warned her the wait could be nine more years. “It looks like when you do things illegally in this country, you are a lot better off than if you follow the law,” Johnson says.
Montenegro says she came into the country in 1977 with her husband, Manuel, a construction worker. She had to wait for him to become a citizen to sponsor her.
Long waits, clean records Becoming a citizen begins when a foreigner wins permission to come to the USA as a legal, permanent resident — the holder of what’s known as a “green card.”
To obtain a green card, an immigrant must pay a $325 fee and $70 for fingerprinting, and undergo a physical and a criminal background check. After five years (three for the spouse of a U.S. citizen), permanent residents can apply for citizenship. That requires a $330 fee, plus $70 for a second set of fingerprints.
Applicants must know English and have a clean record. Drunken-driving violations, missed child-support payments or joblessness can be disqualifiers. They must pass an exam in U.S. history and civics that some native-born Americans might find difficult to ace without studying handbooks and sample questions provided by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The exam questions range from naming your home-state senators to the month the president is inaugurated (January). “Your average immigrant, when they undergo the naturalization ceremony, probably has a better understanding of American history and American government than the average American,” says Bill Strassberger of the immigration service. Still, proving eligibility for citizenship can be difficult. Robert Plantadis, 53, a French-born chef who lives in Savannah, Ga., says he spent thousands of dollars to translate documents from jobs he held in Europe and South America to prove his work history. He became a citizen in March.
Ali Ali, 38, a Dearborn, Mich., truck driver, is still waiting 18 months after applying for citizenship. Ali says his family fled Iraq after being persecuted by Saddam Hussein’s regime. Several relatives were killed, he says. His father, now a U.S. citizen, immigrated to the USA in 1992 and applied for his son. Ali, who arrived in 2000, says he was told it might take two years to finish his background check.
Prospective citizens must also demonstrate that they are of “good moral character.” That means paying back taxes. For men 18 to 31, it also means registering for a possible military draft. And it also means having no major run-ins with the law. Some immigration attorneys say the standard is sometimes interpreted too strictly.
Mike Lim, a Seattle database manager who was 13 when his family emigrated from Korea, had to go to federal court after his citizenship application was denied over a traffic infraction. “It blew my mind,” Lim says. He says his offense was speeding and changing lanes without a signal. “I was kind of late for my group study.”
The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee has gone to federal court in 13 states over what it says are undue delays in processing citizenship applications from Arabs and Muslims. Denver lawyer Jihad Muhaisen says they “are slam-dunk cases.”
Hisham Alhourani, who emigrated from Jordan in 1991 and now manages two Texas beauty salons, says he waited a year for a May 2 citizenship interview, only to receive a cancellation letter with no explanation. “Why?” asks Alhourani, who is waiting for further instructions. “We are good people. … We’re trying to avoid doing anything wrong.”
Gonzalez, the top U.S. immigration official, makes no apologies. “Obviously, after 9/11, security is key,” he says. “I remind our staff: If in doubt, don’t do it.”
Bill would add 500,000 slots A bipartisan bill approved in March by the Senate Judiciary Committee would provide at least 500,000 new slots annually for legal immigrants, increasing the number of visas for both those who are entering the country to join family members and those who are coming to work. The current ceiling is 480,000, but that doesn’t include immediate family members of U.S. citizens and legal residents, or some high-tech workers. “Immigration is the key to our future progress, just as it was in the past,” says Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. The House passed a bill in December that focuses on border security, with no provisions to boost legal immigration.
Some experts say the nation needs to make immigration easier for engineers and computer experts because countries such as Australia and Canada are competing for them.
“What we want to do is attract those immigrants who would have the largest positive contribution to the American economy,” Barry Chiswick, a University of Illinois economist, told a Senate panel in April. “And they will be … immigrants with high skills in literacy, numeracy, scientific knowledge and technical training.”
The newest Americans, like most of their fellow citizens, are divided about Congress granting citizenship to illegal immigrants. “It’s very disturbing to see. I had to go through a very expensive thing and see people next to me who cheated all the way,” Plantadis says.
Li Li, a new American from China, is sympathetic. She says all immigrants — whether they came here legally or illegally — share the same motivation. “They’re seeking a better life.”

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