Lori Allen: The rabbit hole of immigration

07/22/2014 10:33 AM

07/22/2014 10:33 AM

The recent news on immigration and the increase in children coming to the U.S. from Central America had me curious about a few things that I thought I should know. I needed to go back and review the most basic policies on immigration and U.S. citizenship.

Naturalization is the process in which a person not born in the United States voluntarily becomes a U.S. citizen. Just how difficult is it to apply for a naturalization certificate and to become a legal U.S. citizen?

The short answer is, it depends. In fact, for every question I had, the answer is pretty much covered by, it depends. Keep that in mind as you read the rest of this column because the answers below are general and certainly depend on a lot of different factors.

OK, you want to become a legal U.S. citizen? According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, to complete the Naturalization process you must:

Have permanent resident status (green card).

Be at least 18 years old.

Demonstrate continuous residency as a permanent resident for five years.

Demonstrate good moral character (based upon laws that Congress has passed).

Pass an English exam and a U.S. history/civics exam. The English exam includes reading, writing and speaking. You can check out the questions at www.uscis.gov website.

Fill out an application and pay a fee of, in most cases, $680.

Be willing and able to take the oath of allegiance. This ceremony is where you finally become a U.S. citizen.

The United States legally admits roughly 1 million immigrants into our country each year by granting permanent residence (green card) status. In order to become a U.S. citizen, a permanent resident must complete the naturalization process.

How long does it take? According to the Department of Homeland Security, of the 779,929 naturalizations that took place in 2013, an average of seven years was spent in permanent resident status.

So, if you want to be admitted legally into the country, how do you apply to become a “green card” permanent resident? This process is even more complicated and involved. The Citizenship and Immigration Services requirements include: must be eligible for one of the immigrant categories, have a qualifying immigrant petition filed and approved, have an immigrant visa immediately available and be admissible to the United States. As always, it depends.

Many factors are taken into consideration during application for a green card such as employment, family, refugee status, those seeking asylum and the country of origin. A green card expires after five years.

It must be renewed to maintain status. A permanent resident is first eligible to apply for naturalization 90 days before the five-year anniversary of gaining permanent resident status.

After learning about legal immigrants, I wondered how many illegal immigrants we have in the U.S.? The answer is unclear and varies depending on the source. According to the Pew Research Center (which used Census Bureau data in its calculations) there were 11.7 million illegal immigrants in America in 2012.

We know U.S. citizens are required to pay taxes, but what about those in permanent residence status? Do they pay taxes?

Yes, they do. But so do illegal immigrants. Those working legitimate jobs by providing false documentation pay into the government via their paychecks. Because filling out a tax form would reveal their illegal status, the government tends to keep the money that’s deducted. Illegal immigrants also pay sales taxes on the items they purchase.

Now back to the children. According to the United Nations refugee agency, the current increase that we are hearing about actually began in 2011, when the U.S. government recorded a dramatic rise in the number of unaccompanied and separated children arriving to the United States, many of them from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Most child migrants have historically come from Mexico, and Border Patrol agents can immediately return them to Mexico after quick questioning. This means that historically, the United States hasn’t had to house many child migrants. With more children coming from Central America — who are automatically put into custody and require full court proceedings — the U.S. has to house a much larger share of the children who cross. And that number has exploded.

What about obtaining a green card for those under 18? Among other requirements, one parent must be a U.S. citizen for a child to obtain a green card. Beyond that comes the question of whether or not these children are refugees. That’s a rabbit hole designed to be complex and difficult to navigate.

Even the most basic immigration questions become complex when all of the variables are considered. So what will happen to the children arriving in our country from Central American countries? It depends.

Freelance columnist Lori Allen writes in this space once a month.

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