Path to U.S. citizenship narrow as deportation looms for undocumented immigrants

Path to U.S. citizenship narrow as deportation looms for undocumented immigrants


The path to United States citizenship is narrow, often coming with a long wait and thousands of dollars in application fees. For undocumented immigrants, obtaining legal status is virtually impossible.

By the numbers

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services receives approximately 6 million applications for permanent residency a year, commonly referred to as green card. The green card is the gateway to naturalization, with applicants required to have one for three to five years before they can be eligible for naturalization. According to data provided by the Department of Homeland Security, in 2015 just over 1 million green cards were granted. Of those applicants, 44 percent were immediate relatives of U.S. citizens and an additional 20 percent were family-sponsored. Just under 14 percent of green cards were given to those with employment sponsorship. Refugees made up 11 percent of green card recipients.

Thirty eight percent of applicants reported their last country of legal residency as Asia and 35 percent North America, with less than ten percent coming from Africa, Europe and South America respectively.

An estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants reside in the United States.

A brief history of immigration policy

Until the end of World War I, the United States had virtually no restrictions on immigration with up to 10,000 arrivals processed each day at Ellis Island at the peak of immigration near the turn of the century. Following World War I, an anti-immigrant “hysteria” set in, according to North Haven Immigration Attorney Michael Boyle, resulting in greater restrictions that were partially loosened in 1965 with the Immigration and Nationality Act, which abolished a nationality-based quota system. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 placed significant restrictions on immigration, enacting harsh penalties on those residing in the country illegally. Those in the country without legal status for less than a year are required to leave the country for a minimum of three years unless a pardon is obtained in order to be eligible to apply for legal status. Undocumented immigrants living in the country for over a year are required to leave for 10 years unless a waiver is obtained, Returning to the country without a waiver would result in a 10-year wait to apply for the waiver.

While the laws are strict, they were not necessarily being enforced allowing many undocumented residents to remain in the country, pay income taxes and purchase property. Undocumented immigrants were granted stays of removal, however, policy changes under the administration of President Donald Trump ceased that practice earlier this year, resulting in a 60 percent increase of deportation orders for those with work tax identification cards. The result has been undocumented residents who had historically received stays of deportation began being issued removal orders upon reporting to immigration authorities for yearly check ins.

Who is eligible?

The immigration system divides applicants into various categories with different applications and restrictions. For applicants in the U.S. on a VISA with either a citizen spouse or U.S. child over 21, Boyle said the process can be fairly simple and a green card can be obtained in six to nine months.

“Beyond that it goes to very difficult to impossible,” Boyle said.

The next most viable group of applicants are those sponsored by an immediate family member. The wait list for these applicants can be extremely long, Boyle said, with a 12 year wait for a married adult child with a citizen parent and 14 years for sibling sponsorship.

Wait lists also vary by country of origin, Boyle said. The current wait list for applicants from Mexico is 20 years while the Philippines is 23 years.

Those with VISAs and either a citizen spouse or parent are the only applicants able to process legally in the United States. All other applicants, if they have been residing here illegally, are required to leave the country for 10 years unless granted an immigration pardon.

The other viable category of applicants are those with employer sponsorship, which requires proof of highly specialized skills, according to visiting Quinnipiac University Law Professor Sheila Hayre.

“You have to show you have special skills and it’s really difficult,” Hayre said.

The cost of application can range from about $1,700 to over $10,000, Boyle said.

Applicants with family or employment sponsorship constitute “a relatively limited subset of people,” Boyle said. Outside of that, “the great mass of people really have nothing.”

That includes those who enter the county illegally, including children brought over by their parents.

Maria Harlow, Executive Director of the Spanish Community of Wallingford, said the restrictions account for why so many undocumented immigrants are unable to achieve legal status. The Spanish Community of Wallingford has partial certification to assist in citizenship applications, green card and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival renewals. So far the organization has filed 28 applications for citizenship, Harlow said. The non-profit wanted to assist in the process because many take advantage of families desperate for legal status and file applications with no hope of approval, costing thousands, Harlow said.

“Unfortunately there are people out in the community that take advantage of immigrants looking to get legal status,” Harlow said.

The Spanish Community of Wallingford holds “Know your Rights” workshops for immigrants, Harlow said. In recent months they have had to add workshops focusing on parents planning for guardianship in the event they are deported and must leave their children behind.
Twitter: @LeighTaussRJ


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