To Be (Or Not To Be) A Citizen

Mauricio Rosa walked, hitch-hiked and swam to the United States to escape the violence of the El Salvadoran civil war in the 1980s. He was just a teenager when he and his wife decided to make the month-long journey on foot to find asylum in the U.S. 

Rosa, like so many others, was escaping the results of the Cold War in Central and South America. Ironically, they came to the country that aided in the perpetuation of violence and even more ironically, Ronald Reagan — the same man who implemented some of the stickiest laws against undocumented immigrants — was the man who granted them asylum. 

“By the time we got to the U.S., there was a law that sheltered all those who had come from El Salvador because of the civil war. It was a program that the Reagan administration took out …. it was like a system of amnesty,” Rosa said. “That’s when we started the papers for a temporary citizenship, and then a permanent one.” Rosa had to wait 10 years to get a permanent residency; becoming a citizen took even longer. 

The current immigration process in the U.S. does not make it easy for people to become a citizen, and it is often convoluted, excluding much of the population that need visas. 

Sandra Bruno, associate attorney at Miller&Mayer, said the way Congress distributes visas only allows the issuance of a certain amount per year. Those visas are then broken down into five main categories — such as family visas or employment visas — and each of these categories is assigned a certain number as well. These visas are then distributed equally within certain countries. No more than 7 percent of visas can be issued to a particular country every fiscal year. 

“What ends up happening,” Bruno said, “with countries like China, India, Mexico and the Philippines where the demand is far greater than the number of visas they have available, is a backlog of these people waiting 20 years, in some cases, for a visa. If you’re from a country that traditionally does not send immigrants to the U.S. then your path is going to be much shorter.”

There are 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. and the current cap on visas that can be issued every year is 675,000. Around 71 percent of these visas are given to family members; the rest are divided into employment-based visas, asylum seekers and refugees. On top of that, the U.S. does not allow more than 85,000 refugee or asylum seekers into the country every year, and seeing that there are rising migration patterns from both Latin America and the Middle East to escape violence and persecution, the backlog of these papers is about to become very long as well. 

“Congress really has to look at the situation and be more realistic about how many visas are necessary and the government is authorized to issue,” said Bruno. 

Rosa was granted one of the asylum visas, but even starting up the process for that paperwork was difficult. “In the 10 years it took to get a residency, my wife and I were always working. We payed taxes even though we worked illegally for five years. After that, we got our Social Security number, and that was when we were allowed to make everything legal and apply for asylum as well as residency,” Rosa said. 

For Rosa and his wife, the process was simpler than for most, even if it did take more than 20 years to become a citizen. Rosa lived in Massachusetts when his paperwork to become a resident started, but he could only find a job in Ithaca, NY with a friend. “There were a lot of complications. We had to travel a lot from state to state to meet with lawyers and make the process go smoothly,” Rosa said.

Reagan’s asylum program, designed specifically for those coming from Guatemala and El Salvador, helped push his process along and allowed him to bypass of the essential requirements for green card application coming into the country legally.

Bruno said most people who do not have a visa or green card in the country remain that way because they have no means of applying for them.

For example, a person who crossed the border illegally is automatically ineligible for a green card. “To apply for a green card within the U.S., you need to show that you were either admitted or paroled into the country, meaning that you came in legally; when you entered someone inspected you,” Bruno said. “Most of these people did not do that and that automatically makes them ineligible without inspection.”

Another hurdle is that if an entire family comes into the country and no one is documented, they cannot apply for a visa and therefore cannot apply for a green card. 

“If there are no family members who have papers, there is no way to apply for a green card,” Bruno said.

Employment visas are also an option, but they are exceptionally difficult to obtain. “If you want to get an employer who wants to sponsor you, a lot of the time you have to go through a recruitment process. It’s this long process where they have to advertise for that position and show that there is no qualified American worker willing and able to take that position,” Bruno said. 

Other categories of employment visas include “aliens with extraordinary ability,” visas reserved for those with advanced degrees and people who can invest 500,000 dollars in the U.S. 

“The current undocumented population does not usually meet these requirements,” Bruno said. 

Most people who migrate into the U.S. are people who are escaping poverty and persecution, and many of them could not even buy the plane ticket to cross the border, making it hard for a large percentage of people to become documented in the U.S. 

For those who have the privilege of getting a green card, their process does not stop there. Bruno explained that a green card is simply a type of “premium visa.” A person is allowed to work and live in the U.S., pay taxes and be a part of society. But they are still subject to deportation and have to wait a minimum of five years before applying for citizenship. 

The most recent census of green card holders was done in 2012 by the Department of Homeland Security, and they found that at the time, there was an estimated 13.3 million legal permanent residents in the country. That’s 13.3 million people paying taxes but not allowed to vote for elected officials. Out of these 13.3 million only 8.8 were eligible to naturalize — become a citizen. Additionally only 66 percent of an already very reduced population of immigrants. 

“The legal avenues to come to this country are becoming more challenging,” said Shannon Gleeson, Associate Professor of Labor Relations, Law & History at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Gleeson said she thinks this is because when people are undocumented or have to go through such an extended process of getting the necessary papers, it is easier to exploit them in the work force. 

Undocumented immigrant workers usually do not have access to certain protections that are given to U.S. citizens or Legal Permanent Residents. Not having access to these protections can result in being exploited to the point of abuse. 

“Many do not come forward with what is happening in fear of deportation or, if they are applying for a visa, that their paperwork will be further delayed and the process will take longer,” she said. “A lot of the time their ability to stay in the country is tied to their ability to have a job.” No immigrant would bite the hand that allows them to stay in the country.

The current political climate also does not help. Gleeson said that most of the unions that used to help undocumented immigrants are now turning against them, sympathizing with President Donald Trump and his anti-immigrant agenda. 

For example, “Construction unions are ambivalent to immigration rights and support Trump as well as the wall, as long as it’s union built,” Gleeson said. 

However, Gleeson said whatever appointments made by the president in regards to unions and by extension, workers rights and immigration “will change how willing [unions and labor organizations] are to reach out to immigrant communities, something that had been more open with the Obama administration.”

Regardless of all of the barriers — both metaphorical and eventually physical — most people would rather come to the U.S. than stay in dangerous situations. 

Rosa said that it is going to be hard for the government to stop immigrants from coming into the country, but he has noticed that is has become exceptionally harder to become a documented immigrant in the U.S. 

“Many people go through the process because it’s too dangerous to go back home. You have to find a solution, no matter how long it takes,” Rosa said.