Walking the Path to Citizenship

Rebecca Kaplan
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Rebecca Kaplan
Sept. 2, 2013, 8:09 a.m.

It has been 13 years since Car­los Crespo crossed the bor­der from Mex­ico in­to the United States in the desert near No­gales, Ar­iz. The “coyote” he paid $1,000 to help him cross later went to pris­on. Crespo went to Bal­timore.

And there, he built a life that would look fa­mil­i­ar al­most any­where in the U.S. He met and mar­ried Christina, who is also from Mex­ico. They had a daugh­ter, Veron­ica. At 43, Crespo spends his days work­ing at an auto body shop, where he has held a job for the last 11 years, and vo­lun­teer­ing at Casa de Mary­land, an ad­vocacy group that helps im­mig­rants.

And he watches the im­mig­ra­tion de­bate tak­ing place 39 miles away in the U.S. Cap­it­ol, which will largely de­term­ine his fam­ily’s fu­ture.

“I have faith that we are go­ing to pass im­mig­ra­tion re­form,” he said in Span­ish, speak­ing in Casa de Mary­land’s Bal­timore of­fice. “There is a lot of pres­sure now … we don’t want to sleep. We want to keep fight­ing, keep push­ing the Re­pub­lic­ans be­cause we know it is their de­cision. They’ll do what they want, but we are send­ing the mes­sage that if they don’t pass im­mig­ra­tion re­form, those who can vote won’t vote for them.”

As the year goes on, the pro­spects of Con­gress passing an im­mig­ra­tion bill that in­cludes a path­way to cit­izen­ship have grown dim­mer. The Sen­ate backed a bill in late June that out­lines a roughly 13-year pro­cess. That’s likely to be even more ar­du­ous in the House — if the House ap­proves any­thing at all. (So far, com­mit­tees have passed five im­mig­ra­tion bills, but none deals with a path to cit­izen­ship.)

While Con­gress ad­dresses many vi­tal is­sues — from food stamps to de­clar­a­tions of war — few have the type of dir­ect im­pact that a path­way to cit­izen­ship would have on the 11 mil­lion people liv­ing il­leg­ally in the United States. For them, the abil­ity to be­come U.S. cit­izens could change everything, from wheth­er they can drive leg­ally and buy a home to where they can work and wheth­er their chil­dren can af­ford col­lege.

There’s also the fear of de­port­a­tion, which, however low the chances, is a ma­jor is­sue for Crespo. His daugh­ter, now 3, has Down syn­drome, and Crespo is wor­ried about hav­ing to leave the U.S. be­cause he says the level of health care in Mex­ico is not as good. Here, his daugh­ter was able to get in­sur­ance, but their doc­tor at Johns Hop­kins told Crespo that her life de­pends on the treat­ment she is re­ceiv­ing.

However, an op­por­tun­ity for cit­izen­ship would af­fect Crespo in many ways. He would like to buy a house. He would like to stay act­ive in U.S. polit­ics. He’s been vo­lun­teer­ing with Casa de Mary­land for eight years, help­ing to do out­reach in his com­munity, and he loves that he can go to An­na­pol­is and talk dir­ectly to the state’s law­makers. In Mex­ico, he said, you can’t do that.

Per­haps most im­port­ant, Crespo said, he wants the op­por­tun­ity to demon­strate that he’s not here to live off the gov­ern­ment. “We want Re­pub­lic­ans to give us the op­por­tun­ity to demon­strate that we want this coun­try, we want to move this coun­try for­ward, really. We’re not a bur­den,” he said. “Many con­ser­vat­ives think that people are liv­ing off the gov­ern­ment be­cause they don’t pay taxes. So this is what we want to demon­strate to them, that we can move the coun­try for­ward to­geth­er.”

No Easy Path

Any path­way to cit­izen­ship passed by Con­gress will not be easy.

Un­der the Sen­ate bill, people like Crespo would have to spend 10 years as a re­gistered pro­vi­sion­al im­mig­rant and be sub­ject to a host of re­quire­ments. If they are con­tinu­ously em­ployed; speak or are learn­ing Eng­lish; study U.S. his­tory; pay a pro­cessing fee, a fine, and back taxes; and pass a back­ground check, they can ap­ply for a green card — provided the back­log has been cleared. After three years of law­ful per­man­ent res­id­ent status, people may ap­ply to nat­ur­al­ize as cit­izens.

Yet Crespo, like many oth­ers, says that the even a long, com­plic­ated, and ex­pens­ive path­way to cit­izen­ship is worth­while. He’s more com­fort­able com­mu­nic­at­ing in Span­ish, and he doesn’t think he could pass an Eng­lish test right now. But if a re­form bill makes it all the way to the pres­id­ent’s desk, Crespo said he’ll be ready.

That won’t be the case for every­one. Even if a law is passed that of­fers il­leg­al im­mig­rants the chance to gain leg­al status and cit­izen­ship, his­tory shows that many will not take ad­vant­age of the op­por­tun­ity.

A study con­duc­ted by the Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment found that of the 2.7 mil­lion people who were giv­en leg­al per­man­ent res­id­ent status un­der the 1986 Im­mig­ra­tion Re­form and Con­trol Act, only 41 per­cent chose to nat­ur­al­ize by 2009.

Even now, im­mig­rants who are gran­ted leg­al per­man­ent res­id­ency don’t al­ways be­come cit­izens. Ac­cord­ing to a study by the Pew His­pan­ic Cen­ter re­leased earli­er this year, the num­ber of eli­gible im­mig­rants from Lat­in Amer­ica and the Carib­bean who had not yet nat­ur­al­ized by 2011 ex­ceeded those who did seek cit­izen­ship. Rates of nat­ur­al­iz­a­tion are par­tic­u­larly low among Mex­ic­an im­mig­rants, the largest pop­u­la­tion that stands to be­ne­fit from le­gis­la­tion that in­cludes a path­way to cit­izen­ship.

More than nine in 10 Latino leg­al per­man­ent res­id­ents ex­press a de­sire to nat­ur­al­ize, but 45 per­cent have cited per­son­al or ad­min­is­trat­ive bar­ri­ers to ap­ply­ing, such as in­suf­fi­cient Eng­lish (26 per­cent). Nearly all of those who cite ad­min­is­trat­ive bar­ri­ers (18 per­cent) say the $680 cost of a cit­izen­ship ap­plic­a­tion is pro­hib­it­ive — and un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants be­ing offered pro­vi­sion­al status would have to pay ad­di­tion­al fines be­fore even get­ting the chance to nat­ur­al­ize.

Fo­cused on Fam­ily

While get­ting to cit­izen­ship would be dif­fi­cult, life without pa­pers might be even harder.

One com­mon theme is fam­ily sep­ar­a­tion. For ex­ample, Al­b­er­tina — or “Tina,” as her friends call her (she de­clined to sup­ply her last name be­cause of her leg­al status) — came to Bal­timore from Mex­ico nine years ago on a tour­ist visa and stayed. Three of her daugh­ters were born in her home coun­try, but the fourth was born in the U.S. and is a cit­izen.

Tina’s old­est daugh­ter re­turned to Mex­ico to pur­sue a col­lege edu­ca­tion. Mary­land voters had not yet ap­proved a 2012 bal­lot ini­ti­at­ive that would grant in-state tu­ition to un­doc­u­mented stu­dents; without those lower rates, col­lege was out of the ques­tion in the United States.

Now, Tina’s eld­est daugh­ter can’t leg­ally come back to the United States be­cause au­thor­it­ies know that she once over­stayed a visa. But they hope she’ll be able to come back un­der a re­form bill.

For oth­ers, work be­comes a prob­lem. That is the case for So­nia, 50 (who also de­clined to sup­ply her last name), a Per­uvi­an wo­man who lives with her hus­band and two daugh­ters in Broward County, Fla. In her home coun­try of Peru, So­nia had stud­ied psy­cho­logy at Uni­ver­sid­ad Inca Gar­cilaso de la Vega. Her hus­band, Dante, had star­ted law school. They came to Flor­ida on tour­ist visas with their two young daugh­ters in search of a bet­ter life. The fam­ily spent time and money work­ing with law­yers to leg­al­ize their status, but they were un­suc­cess­ful.

So­nia was able to val­id­ate her cre­den­tials, but she couldn’t find work. She was es­pe­cially dis­ap­poin­ted that she couldn’t take a job she was offered as a psy­cho­lo­gist work­ing with chil­dren in her nat­ive Span­ish lan­guage. So she and her hus­band first found jobs clean­ing at the loc­al mall. Now, she cleans houses and Dante works the night shift at a gas sta­tion. So­nia rides her bike to work; the fam­ily made the de­cision that only her hus­band should take the risk of driv­ing without a cur­rent li­cense.

So­nia’s old­est daugh­ter, however, is an ex­ample of someone who has been able to prosper when giv­en a leg­al av­en­ue to do so.

Pres­id­ent Obama en­acted the De­ferred Ac­tion for Child­hood Ar­rivals pro­gram in 2011. It pre­vents un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants between the ages of 15 and 31, who were brought to the coun­try be­fore they turned 16 and who can prove con­tinu­ous res­id­ence since 2007, from be­ing de­por­ted.

Sofia, 19, was gran­ted de­ferred ac­tion status, and was able to start tak­ing classes at Broward Col­lege, al­though she’s lim­ited to two a semester be­cause she can’t af­ford to take a full load with the out-of-state tu­ition rates she must pay. So­nia notes with pride that Sofia also has a full-time job, “not in clean­ing, not in con­struc­tion, not in garden­ing. She got a job at an or­tho­dont­ic lab.”

The Dream­ers

Young un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants like So­nia’s daugh­ters are the most likely sub­set of the en­tire pop­u­la­tion in the U.S. il­leg­ally to be gran­ted some sort of re­lief. The so-called Dream­ers have be­come one of the rare points of agree­ment in the im­mig­ra­tion de­bate: Few people be­lieve that those brought to the coun­try as chil­dren should be de­por­ted (though a Dream Act died in Con­gress as re­cently as 2010).

As their ranks have be­come more vis­ible and vo­cal, they have star­ted to push law­makers to ad­dress their situ­ation, and to keep their fam­il­ies to­geth­er, too.

“To me, as a per­son that con­siders her­self an Amer­ic­an, a cit­izen­ship is not a pa­per, it’s not a nine-di­git num­ber,” said Gaby Pacheco, one of the most prom­in­ent faces of the Dream­er move­ment, who came to the U.S. il­leg­ally from Ecuador with her fam­ily when she was 8. “It means so much more. It means be­ing able to “¦ pur­sue my own hap­pi­ness.”

Un­der the Sen­ate bill, people who can prove they were brought to the U.S. be­fore the age of 16 are gran­ted an ac­cel­er­ated path­way to cit­izen­ship: They only have to spend five years in pro­vi­sion­al status be­fore be­ing eli­gible to ap­ply for a green card, fol­lowed by cit­izen­ship three years later. That could open up op­por­tun­it­ies for thou­sands of young im­mig­rants without pa­pers, just as the de­ferred-ac­tion pro­gram has done so for 22-year-old Ray Jose.

Jose’s par­ents brought him from the Phil­ip­pines to the U.S. when he was 9, in search of more op­por­tun­it­ies and a bet­ter edu­ca­tion. They came on tour­ist visas but did not leave. Jose grew up like the oth­er kids in Rock­ville, Md., at­tend­ing school and play­ing base­ball and lacrosse. It was only when he was a seni­or in high school, and offered a track schol­ar­ship to Vir­gin­ia Tech, that he learned about his status. When he came home to share the news with his par­ents, his moth­er said to him in their nat­ive lan­guage of Ta­ga­log, “My son, please for­give me,” and ex­plained the story of how he had come to the U.S.

With low-pay­ing jobs — his moth­er is a care­taker for the eld­erly, and his fath­er works at a print­ing press — col­lege would be un­af­ford­able for the fam­ily, and he wouldn’t be able to ap­ply for fin­an­cial aid. Mary­land had not yet passed its own ver­sion of the Dream Act that would grant in-state tu­ition to un­doc­u­mented youth.

“Everything that I was taught — if you work hard, get your edu­ca­tion, you can do what you want. I’m not in that same situ­ation,” Jose said. His par­ents were able to scrape to­geth­er enough money to pay for one semester at Mont­gomery Col­lege, the loc­al com­munity col­lege, where he fi­nally met oth­er people like him. In the Filipino com­munity, he ex­plained, be­ing un­doc­u­mented is frowned upon and not widely dis­cussed.

He got in­volved in push­ing the Mary­land Dream Act, and works now as an or­gan­izer for United We Dream, a group that ad­voc­ates for young im­mig­rants and their fam­il­ies. He goes to school part time so he can work to help sup­port his fam­ily, and his ap­plic­a­tion for de­ferred ac­tion was gran­ted. But he wants an im­mig­ra­tion bill that would put him on a path­way to cit­izen­ship so he can have op­por­tun­it­ies, like the chance to do car­di­ology re­search, much of which is fun­ded by the gov­ern­ment and would re­quire him to have leg­al status or cit­izen­ship. Plus, he wants the chance to vote; to have peace of mind that his par­ents won’t be de­por­ted; and he wants them to be able to travel to the Phil­ip­pines to see mem­bers of their fam­ily from whom they’ve been sep­ar­ated for 13 years.

“For my fam­ily over­all, it would mean that we’d ac­tu­ally be Amer­ic­ans on pa­per, be­cause in our minds and in our hearts ever since we left the Phil­ip­pines I think we’ve been pur­su­ing the Amer­ic­an Dream,” he said. “We’ve had that prob­lem where we’re Amer­ic­ans, but it just doesn’t say it on pa­per.”

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