Of course I’m for comprehensive immigration reform – including a temporary worker program and earned adjustment (permanent residence) for long-term undocumented foreigners. I’m an immigration attorney. My work, my passion, is helping these individuals and their employers negotiate the labyrinth of immigration rules and procedures.
There’s a lot of opposition to comprehensive immigration reform. And admittedly there are two sides to the issue. But what bothers me is the way the media have coined the phrase “path to citizenship.” Call it that and just about anybody would be against it. Why should we give away our coveted U.S. citizenship to long-term illegals?
Well, the truth is we’re not giving it away and it’s no pathway indeed. Citizenship is a rough, rocky, difficult process reserved only for the most deserving. True, we encourage foreigners to eventually become citizens of this country – we want them to become citizens. But it’s not a freebie. It comes with time, study, and a good, clean record. Here’s how it works.
Only Lawful Permanent Residents (green card holders) can apply to become a citizen. A foreigner becomes a lawful permanent resident basically through one of three methods: a qualifying family relationship (example: spouse of a U.S. citizen), a job offer from a qualified U.S. employer (after the labor market has been tested for the unavailability of U.S. workers), and special laws. Special laws is where comprehensive immigration reform comes in. Congress is proposing a special law that would give certain long-term undocumented foreigners lawful status. The special law would probably only apply to persons who have been in this country in an undocumented status for more than five years, who have worked and contributed to the community for at least three years, who have paid all back income taxes, who have a clean criminal record, and who have learned to speak our language. If they meet these criteria, they will qualify to become green card holders. This means they can live and work in the U.S. legally and permanently. They can’t vote, they can’t travel outside the U.S. for extensive periods of time, they can’t hold certain government jobs. But they can live here legally, continue to pay taxes, drive cars, get married, go to school, and function as law-abiding residents. The process of becoming a resident can cost thousands of dollars.
After they have been here for five years as Legal Permanent Residents, they then have the right to apply for citizenship. This, too, has a hefty government processing fee of several hundred dollars and the standards are high. Applicants for citizenship have to demonstrate they have the ability to read, speak, and write in English. They have to demonstrate a basic understanding of our history and government (QUICK: Name the 13 original colonies! Can’t? Then you don’t qualify for U.S. citizenship.). And they have to prove a scrupulous record of good moral character for at least (at least) the past five years (the government can delve as far back as it wants, however). Then, there’s the waiting . . . and waiting . . . and waiting . . . . I’ve had clients pass the interview and then wait years for an appointment to be sworn in as a U.S. citizen.
And if you’d like to have a feel-good cry sometime, go to the Federal Courthouse and observe a naturalization swearing-in ceremony. You can call the U.S. Clerk of Court for the schedule. The ceremonies are very touching; the words of the Federal judge always meaningful; the sight of a hundred or so people from around the world – surrounded by friends and family — swearing their allegiance to this country will touch your heart.
So the next time you read an article about comprehensive immigration reform and the proposed law is couched in terms of “path to citizenship,” read between the lines. Comprehensive immigration reform does not place undocumented individuals on the path to citizenship. It gives them the same opportunity any other lawful permanent resident gets – a chance to be considered for U.S. citizenship, if they can endure the challenge and pass the test.