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Obtaining US citizenship brings hurdles
Visas that allow entry to the U.S. fall under two categories
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It takes a lot to be an American.

For most, all that's required is to be born somewhere in the 50 states.

But for others, the journey is long and paved with obstacles - financial difficulties, repeated visits to consulates and years of waiting.

"A legal resident can live here forever, can work anywhere, but they do not have the ability to vote," said Madeline Wirt, an attorney with Whelchel, Dunlap, Jarrard & Walker, LLP. "And you have to be a permanent resident for some time before you can petition to be a U.S. citizen."

Wirt said almost every avenue toward citizenship and legal residency requires that an individual have the proper legal paperwork when they enter the country.

"If you're trying to get into this country and you're out of the country, that's not an issue. But if you are here, it's important to know how you got here," Wirt said.

"There are a variety of ways you can come in legally, including just the basic tourist visa. But many, many people in this country came without inspection. They just came in."

Nancy J., who asked that her last name not be used, knows what it's like to be an undocumented immigrant in Hall County.

Her husband, Moises, came to America in 1989. It took years after their marriage for Moises to become a permanent resident - a green card holder — and because of the obstacles, he's not sure if he wants to become a citizen.

"We had to first go to the immigration office and fill out each form," Nancy said. "He had to pay a huge fine.

He had to pay back taxes for the years he was here as an illegal immigrant."

Another thing Nancy and Moises had to do was prove to immigration officials they were a true couple by providing personal photographs and greeting cards. She said this was possibly because illegal immigrants sometimes will pay Americans to marry them so they can apply for permanent residency.

"It's a catch-22 because if they leave the country they're subject to a three- or 10-year bar from ever coming back again depending on how long they stayed," Wirt said. "Those that are here who were not documented do not have an avenue to become legal."

She said undocumented immigrants can wait until the bar period passes to apply for a visa or permanent resident status. But even then, they must have a family member sponsor them or have a job waiting on them.

Nancy said she is lucky Moises did not get deported during the waiting period to get an immigration appointment.

One reason why she did not have to wait is because she is an American citizen, Wirt said. For family-based visas, there is a waiting period depending on how closely the American is related to the immigrant being sponsored.

Visas that allow entry the U.S. fall under two categories: immigrant and nonimmigrant. Wirt said nonimmigrant visas included student and tourist visas.

Gainesville resident Joanna West came to the U.S. from China in 2000 on a student visa to study sociology at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro. She applied more than five times to get the visa.

"The student visa only lasts until you finish school," she said. "I was lucky because I married my husband before my student visa expired."

West had an interesting adventure in the post-Sept. 11 world to get her green card. Her paperwork was lost in the mail and on one set of documents, husband Todd's picture and hers were switched. The process was expensive, but well worth the wait.

After a long waiting period of being a permanent resident, West said she decided to apply for citizenship.

"The citizenship process is a lot easier because you're already a green card holder, so they know you're legal," she said. "It provides a lot of freedom for travel. Also I was thinking about applying for some federal jobs and most of those require that you're a citizen. And I wanted to vote - that's one of the most important reasons."

West said if she hadn't married Todd while her student visa was still good, she would have either had to study something else, go back to China or have an employer apply for an employment visa.

There are both immigrant and nonimmigrant versions of these, both of which are very specialized, Wirt said.

"(Temporary work visas) are the ones that are most common for specialty occupations in which you need a degree," Wirt said. "The other is for intracompany transferring, which is quite prevalent here in Gainesville because we have a lot of companies who are subsidiaries of foreign companies. There is a provision which allows those companies to transfer employees in the foreign countries here to help set up and run the business here."

Immigrant employee visas have built-in protection for the U.S. labor market. There are five preferences, or categories, one of which only has 19 professions that even qualify to apply, Wirt said.

"In almost every case with respect to those, the employer who is requesting this particular employee has to do a labor certification which shows that there are no U.S. workers who are able, willing and available and qualified to fill the position," Wirt said. "With the current unemployment rate we have right now, these are not often granted."

Pauline Anderson immigrated to Gainesville from New South Wales, Australia, in 2002. She met her future husband online through mutual friends.

"I came over to visit once and when I came back, we decided to get married," she said.

It took her two years from start to finish to get her green card.

The most difficult part of the process for the Andersons was the cost because Anderson couldn't work while she was waiting for her permanent residency status.

Anderson is considering applying for American citizenship, but wants to retain her Australian identity.

She said the hardest part of being in the U.S. — aside from the culture — is not having seen her children or grandchildren in almost 10 years.

"(My kids) were sort of like, ‘You gave up your life to raise us and now it's your turn,'" she said. "I talk to them frequently on Skype, which is a blessing."