The Difficult Path to the American Dream: Immigrants are finding it increasingly difficult to obtain US citizenship
On a fall morning, Jonas Waldab arrived at the Paramount Theater in downtown Auckland, California. The landmark in the Art Deco style, built in the 1930's, resembles the golden age of Hollywood, with high ceilings and spiral staircases. Valdab, in an elegant dark suit, is dressed for a special occasion, like those around him: women in floral blouses, children in dresses and suits.
What else united them was the tiny US flags. Almost everyone kept one at a time. Flags marked this event - the ceremony of naturalization - and the end of a long journey, which usually takes many years.
“God bless America, God bless the American people, these beautiful people. I am very happy to be part of them, ”said Valdab, a native of Eritrea. Then he waved to his wife and two young children as they walked to the balcony to watch.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of people participate in such ceremonies. They are overseen by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), a federal agency. But the process of becoming a US citizen under the Trump administration is becoming increasingly complex. Candidates are faced with a more thorough examination, the expected increase in application fees and the long processing time - expectations that could prevent thousands of future U.S. citizens from voting in the 2020 general election.
Most immigrants must wait five years to qualify for citizenship. After that, the process usually progresses pretty quickly.
Everything has changed since President Donald Trump took office.
Waldab waited more than a year after he applied for citizenship to attend the naturalization ceremony - an expectation typical of the Trump administration. At the national level, the expectation of citizenship now averages 10 months, almost twice as much as just two years ago. Waiting can vary significantly by location. Apply for citizenship in Albany, NY, and waiting times range from 10,5 to 17 months. In Baltimore, the range is from 9 to 22 months. In Las Vegas, from 13,5 to 18,5 months.
USCIS officials say they are overloaded with claims for naturalization. Indeed, a surge has occurred, but the increase in the number of applications is not new. The number of applications for citizenship usually increases in anticipation of the presidential election or fees.
However, the growth in the number of citizenship applications prior to the 2016 election of the year has not subsequently declined, as in the past. Applications were piling up as Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric of the campaign turned into executive orders and other measures that attempted to limit immigration. Some of the new policies may complicate the process of becoming legal permanent residents citizens. Attorney General William Barr has simplified the deportation of lawful permanent residents who commit certain crimes.
“The two-year surge in applications has led to a large workload for USCIS workers, and their processing simply did not keep up with demand,” said Julia Gelatt of the Institute for Migration Policy, an independent think tank in Washington, DC.
Avalina Cadena, originally from Mexico and came to the United States as a child, works at a Hispanic radio station near Seattle. She said Trump’s victory in the presidential election convinced her to obtain citizenship.
“I'm afraid that the laws will change, and I will lose my green card,” she said. After more than 15 months, Kaden’s expectations swore in mid-November.
There was a second side of the woman’s decision to apply for citizenship: to vote in the presidential election of 2020 of the year. “Yes, yes, I want to vote,” she said.
But people starting the naturalization process today may not become citizens until next year's election. Robert Preuss, a professor of political science at the University of Colorado at Denver, believes that about 157 000 people across the United States may miss their chance to vote in the 2020 year.
RELATED: Five Typical Reasons for Rejecting a Naturalization Application
In written statements, USCIS representatives said that the number of citizenship applications had “skyrocketed” under President Barack Obama, and that the agency hired new employees and opened new offices to keep up with the large number of applications and the backlog.
However, under Obama and previous administrations, waiting times were much shorter.
Building a strong democracy
Citizenship is “building our democracy,” said Eric Cohen, executive director of the San Francisco-based Center for Immigrant Legal Resources (ILRC), a nonprofit organization that provides legal assistance to immigrants at the national level.
There are many new obstacles to participation. Over the years, the non-refundable fee for a naturalization application has steadily increased from a minimum of 35 dollars in the 1980's.
USCIS has proposed raising the current filing fee of $ 640 to 1170 dollars - an increase of 83%. USCIS officials said a boost is needed to cover operating costs.
USCIS also made it difficult for low-income applicants not to pay a fee.
In one survey, about 18% of Latin American respondents identified financial and administrative barriers, including citizenship expenses, as the main obstacles to naturalization.
“If you have to choose between food, food, or medicine and your naturalization statement, what do you think people have to choose?” Said Emma Ibarra-Martinez, an immigration lawyer in Houston.
“At the moment, it is becoming a luxury,” she added.
Meanwhile, lawsuits related to delays and refusals to consider naturalization cases also increased sharply - by 66% last year compared to five years earlier, according to researchers from the University of Syracuse.
“We check first”
At the Auckland Citizenship Ceremony, the mood was warm and welcoming. US immigration officials gathered on stage to celebrate people from all over the world.
Randy Ricks, USCIS Immigration Officer, listed all 97 countries represented by people in the audience, in alphabetical order, from Afghanistan, Canada and El Salvador to Guatemala, India, Mexico and Zimbabwe. Ricks not only greeted people in English, but also in Cantonese, Spanish, Hindi, French and Tagalog.
However, people like Ricks, a longtime USCIS employee who tries to greet new citizens in their own language, today are not setting the tone for USCIS at the national level. Agency management took a tough stance, shifting the mission from promoting citizenship to enforcing immigration laws.
In November, Cucinelli received a promotion. Trump called him acting deputy director of the Internal Security Service, which oversees the USCIS, immigration and customs authorities (ICE), and customs and border services (CBP).
Cucinelli became the spokesman for the immigration administration. It supports family custody and the termination of citizenship at birth. Last year, he compared migrants at the border with invaders who should be brought back.
Cucinelli helped rebrand USCIS by making it more about law enforcement and verification. “USCIS is conducting a more thorough examination of all types of immigration applications,” Gelatt said.
Cohen and other lawyers point out that most citizenship applicants are green card holders who have been checked previously, often twice.
“This country is now your country”
Returning to the citizenship ceremony, Trump's face appeared on the big screen to convey a pre-recorded message.
“This country is now your country. Our story is now your story. And our traditions are now your traditions. You enjoy the full rights and sacred duties that American citizenship has - very, very special, ”the president said.
For many people at the ceremony, this message means great security in the United States, for which Alejandro Morales is grateful. After 30 years in the United States, Morales decided to obtain citizenship.
When the ceremony was over, everyone stood up, raised their right hand and took the oath of allegiance:
“I hereby swear under oath that I completely renounce and renounce all loyalty and devotion to any foreign prince, authorities, state or sovereignty of which or to which I have so far been a subject or citizen; that I will support and protect the Constitution and laws of the United States of America from all enemies, both foreign and domestic ... "
The oath lasts two solid minutes. However, for many here, it took years, and this process is becoming longer and more difficult for those who apply today.
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