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The path to be an American: The process is long, tedious, costly

POSTED: August 6, 2008 5:01 a.m.
SCOTT ROGERS/The Times

Colombia native Alejandro Ramirez, 21, attends Gainesville State College and plans to join the U.S. Army once he becomes a citizen.

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Alejandro Ramirez is a bright young man. The 21-year-old works as a probation officer while pursuing degrees in sociology and journalism at Gainesville State College. He already is planning to go to Washington, D.C., after he graduates. He has goals — and one of them is to join the Army as a communications specialist.

But as fast as his life is moving, there is one thing slowing him down.

To get the job, he has to become a U.S. citizen first.

Ramirez is a permanent resident who came to the United States with his family when he was 12. They were granted political asylum from Colombia, where Ramirez’s father was a successful lawyer.

Even though his paperwork was submitted flawlessly under his father’s legal prowess, Ramirez will not become a citizen for at least another year.

"For an American to enter any country, it’s really easy," Ramirez said. "But you look at the other side of the coin and even getting in is difficult for somebody from a Hispanic background. Now imagine getting citizenship — it’s exponentially much more difficult."

Gainesville immigration lawyer David Kennedy said many people do not realize that becoming a citizen is not as difficult as attaining legal status.

"The really difficult part of the path to citizenship is becoming a lawful permanent resident," Kennedy said.

What is a lawful permanent resident?

Before immigrants can become citizens, they must first apply to become a lawful permanent resident, which allows them to settle in the United States legally. Lawful permanent residents have most of the same rights citizens do — they can get a driver’s license, work and cannot be deported unless they commit certain crimes.

Achieving this status can take a long time, and many immigrants come to the United States with a visa, allowing them to travel, study or work temporarily.

The United States allows people from some countries, known as visa waiver countries, to travel back and forth without having to apply for a visa. These are countries with a high quality of life whose residents are not likely to stay in the United States permanently, Kennedy said.

Japan and Denmark, for example, are visa waiver countries.

On the flip side, other countries that make up the bulk of immigrants are labeled as "oversubscribed," meaning that so many people from these countries want to move to the United States that there are not enough visas to accommodate all of them. Mexico, India, China and the Philippines are the most oversubscribed.

People from these countries have to wait decades in some cases before they can enter the United States legally.

"A 20-year-long line is the same thing as no line at all," Kennedy said.

A misunderstood process

"I think your average person would be shocked if they knew how difficult it was to process toward lawful permanent residence, and what a long and drawn out and extremely expensive process that is," Kennedy said.

There are a number of different paths people can take to become a lawful permanent resident, but most people fall into two categories: family based or employment based.

Most people apply for family-based permanent residence, meaning they have a relative petitioning for them who is currently a lawful permanent resident or a citizen. Employment-based immigration is not as common, and often requires a special skill set that an employer could not find elsewhere.

The Visa Bulletin, available online through the U.S. Department of State Web site, tracks cases and lets people know when they are eligible to adjust their status based on different priority groups.

The parents and spouses of citizens have no waiting period.

"Those people are considered to be immediate relatives. They are not subject to any backlog," Kennedy said.

David Cabrera was able to apply for permanent residence through his wife, Evelyn. Evelyn Cabrera was born a citizen in California, and her family lived just 15 minutes from David’s family in Mexico.

Evelyn Cabrera applied for her husband to become a lawful permanent resident in March 2007, after they got married and settled in Georgia. His papers are still pending.

"We were told eight months to two years," she said.

But others must wait years and even decades in some cases before they can live in the United States legally. David Cabrera’s father is a permanent resident, and applied for David Cabrera and his brothers back in 1999. David Cabrera improved his priority status when he married a citizen. But his brothers will wait at least seven more years before they are able to adjust status.

Some are not able to get into to the country through family members at all.

"Married sons and daughters of lawful permanent residents are not in the National Visa Bulletin because those people are not eligible for anything. Brothers and sisters of lawful permanent residents are not in there because those people are not eligible for anything," Kennedy said. "What we have is a system that there’s no way to comply with for the vast majority of people."

Obstacles make it even longer

There are a number of obstacles that can slow down the naturalization process, and many of them depend on the home country of the applicant and the date of application.

People from some countries who apply for lawful permanent residence now must adjust status from their home countries, according to a law known as 245(i). By going home, they may not be allowed back in.

People who have lived in the country illegally or with an expired visa for more than six months but less than a year run the risk of being barred from the country for three years. Anyone staying more than a year faces a 10-year exile.

Money can also be an obstacle for many immigrants seeking citizenship. Required forms can cost anywhere from $300 to $1,000.

Evelyn Cabrera estimated her family has spent more than $3,000 on paperwork alone, not including lawyer’s fees.

But the work is not done once lawful permanent residency is achieved. Most of the path to citizenship is waiting.

Lawful permanent residents must wait five years before they are allowed to naturalize to citizenship, meaning they must submit paper work, take a test on American history and civics and take an oath of citizenship. Residents who are married to citizens are eligible for citizenship after three years.

And different cases have their own unique requirements.

Ramirez now has to work with both the Colombian and U.S. governments before he can become a citizen.

"I don’t have the citizen card for Colombians," Ramirez said, explaining that a citizen card is identification similar to a U.S. Social Security card. "So before I can become a citizen here, I have to get the citizen card from Colombia. Because there you have to get it when you’re 18 and I came here when I was 12."

Ramirez said that while his journey toward citizenship has been difficult, he is appreciative of the opportunities and security his life in America has allowed him.

"They make it nearly impossible for you to do things legally," Ramirez said. "It’s a challenge, but it’s worth it."



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