Sun In-Depth Report ~ Sonoma Valley Sun


Why it’s so difficult to become a U.S. citizen

Posted on March 24, 2017 by Sonoma Valley Sun

Sun Special Report by Anna Pier — In immigration forums offered around the Valley since election day, providing “Know Your Rights” information and support for local residents who lack legal status, there has been an impressive outpouring of interest from the Anglo community toward their vulnerable neighbors.

Notwithstanding an unequivocal support, there is a question, at times voiced with genuine concern, more often unspoken: “How can it be that someone is here so long without becoming a citizen?”

The reason is, it is astonishingly difficult.

How many immigrants are there who do not have any legal status? The Public Policy Institute of California narrows the focus right down to our Valley, albeit four years ago: “In 2013, there were an estimated 2,501-5,000 undocumented immigrants living in zip code 95476.” The vast majority of these are from Mexico.

Immigrants to this country from Mexico are part of what was described in the 90’s as the “largest mass migration” in human history. Its sheer scale was affirmed in campaign speeches last summer by the president to-be, when he promised deportation to Mexico of 11 million people. The persistent nature of this mass migration, spurred largely by economic factors, is witnessed by Mr. Trump’s parallel proposal to build a huge and high concrete wall across the entire 1,954-mile border between the United States and Mexico.

The answer to the question of how – or if – the huge numbers of undocumented immigrants living here can get legal status is complex, and because it has permutations depending upon the circumstances of each individual immigrant, varied. But the cold hard reality surrounding U.S. immigration law helps us better understand that nagging question as to why aren’t our friends and neighbors, as many as 5,000 undocumented people living and working in our Valley, acquiring legal status?

Attorney Lucy Benz-Rogers works for the nonprofit International Institute of the Bay Area (IIBA) which since January 20 offers immigration law services at La Luz Center. The Sun asked her how does someone “get status?” Benz-Rogers explained that there are annual quotas to obtain a Legal Permanent Resident (LPR) visa – the “green card” – to enter the U.S. legally to stay and work. “The LPR is a direct path to citizenship,” she said.

As to citizenship, after five years in the country on a LPR visa, you are eligible to apply to be “naturalized,” a classification which grants all the benefits of citizenship except the right to be president of the country. Other requirements include passing a U.S. history and civics test, and demonstrating basic fluency in English.

A recent nationwide study by the USC Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration estimates 6,600 “people Eligible-to-Naturalize” currently live in the combined areas of Healdsburg, Windsor and Sonoma.

Of these, 3,573 are from Mexico.

The real challenge is getting LPR status. If you are from Mexico – or China, India or the Philippines – there is an enormous backlog for this visa. The annual quotas for each of these countries are so oversubscribed that the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is processing currently applications submitted 20 years ago.

There is however a “fast track” that bypasses this quota system for some. If you have an “immediate relative” who is a U.S. citizen, immigration law allows you to skip the preferential quota categories that are so seriously backlogged, and your application may be processed directly. Who is eligible? The spouse of a U.S citizen; an unmarried, under-21-year-old child of a U.S. citizen; or a parent of a U.S. citizen who is 21 or older.

But there is a catch for anyone who has spent time in the country unlawfully. The 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) is the source of all U.S. immigration policy. As amended in 1997, it contains a provision penalizing anyone who otherwise qualifies to receive LPR (Legal Permanent Resident) status but has accrued over six months’ unlawful presence in the U.S. If this presence was between six months to a year, you get a penalty or “bar” that requires you to return to your country for three years; over one year of unlawful presence requires you to spend 10 years outside the U.S before you are eligible to obtain the visa.

Benz-Rogers explained, “The entire visa system is based on the great assumption that the person being applied for has not been living here.” Someone living in the U.S. who qualifies for LPR status “runs the peril of triggering the 10-year bar even when they attend the obligatory interview in Ciudad Juarez.”

Benz-Rogers says that at an IIBA screening of a typical person who has no legal status, they first look for family ties. Then they must look at the whole history of entries and exits to and from the U.S.

On the options for the immigrant who has been living in this country illegally, Benz-Rogers was clear. “You can’t hide a life here. You can’t lie.” She explains that she always does an in-depth interview with a person to see if they might qualify for a waiver of some kind. The interview includes an exhaustive history of the person’s entries and exits, including any border encounters or police encounters.

If you are one of those lucky few who qualify for a waiver, there is an application fee of $1,539 plus a $400 fee requesting a “pardon” for having been in the country illegally. This is in addition to a typical legal fee of around $5,000, although a low-income person being helped by an IIBA attorney will qualify for a reduced legal fee.

Since the IIBA office in La Luz’ Booker Hall opened on January 20, Benz-Rogers estimates that she has advised about 100 individuals. Out of these, 10 petitions have been filed for LPR status, plus over a dozen for naturalization. But she says that 30-50 percent of the people who came hoping to get on the path to legal status simply do not have options. “If you don’t have a qualifying relative, there’s no line to get into.”

Questioned about amnesty, Benz-Rogers replied that Congress created for a period between ’99 and ’01 not a full amnesty but a “small window” which allows the possibility of waiver of the 10-year bar. This occurs only if a qualifying family member had petitioned for that relative prior to April 2001.

Benz-Rogers pointed out that since April 2001 when that brief window for possible waiver of the 10-year bar ended, “There are two decades’ worth of arrivals that cannot take advantage of having an immediate relative. A new window needs to be created.”


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