12 April 2008

Stumbling on the Path to Citizenship

Whenever I hear about the issue of immigration and naturalization in the election, I am struck by broad strokes applied to this very heterogeneous group.  Immigrants are "othered," vilified as threats to U.S. security and economy, when the reality is that the majority of immigrants are law-abiding citizens who contribute to society through their labor, buying power, and citizenship.

For my Multicultural Psychology class, we read the book Children of Immigration by Carola Suarez-Orozco & Marcelo Suarez-Orozco; the book synthesizes decades of research on immigrants, painting a rich portrait of the immigrant experience while also highlighting the rich diversity of these experiences. The difficult part is remembering that immigration isn't just an "issue." It is a life experiences for thousands of people, and we can learn so much by attending to these life stories. As a child of immigrants, I have always been peripherally aware of my family's immigration history. It is only recently that I have begun to ask what the experience was really like for my parents. What was it like for my newly-wed parents to live in separate countries for almost three years? How did they manage to make their way up out of poverty, living in Chicago in the basement of our family friends, and into the middle class life of the suburbs? What is it like for my parents to help out their brothers and sisters with their own immigration to the U.S.? Why is it that my parents have been here for almost 30 years, yet still do not feel American? What are the legal issues and overall challenges in this immigration and naturalization process?

This article in the New York Times tells the story of legal immigrants in the US who sought citizenship through naturalization, unaware of the unforgiving process before them.

SELINSGROVE, Pa. — Dr. Pedro Servano always believed that his journey from his native Philippines to the life of a community doctor in Pennsylvania would lead to American citizenship.

But the doctor, who has tended to patients here in the Susquehanna Valley for more than a decade, is instead battling a deportation order along with his wife.

The Servanos are among a growing group of legal immigrants who reach for the prize and permanence of citizenship, only to run afoul of highly technical immigration statutes that carry the severe penalty of expulsion from the country. For the Servanos, the problem has been a legal hitch involving their marital status when they came from the Philippines some 25 years ago.

Largely overlooked in the charged debate over illegal immigration, many of these are long-term legal immigrants in the United States who were confident of success when they applied for naturalization, and would have continued to live here legally had they not sought to become citizens.

As applications for naturalization have surged, overburdened federal examiners, under pressure to make quick decisions and also weed out any security risks, prefer to err on the side of rejection, immigration lawyers and independent researchers said. In 2007, 89,683 applications for naturalization were denied, about 12 percent of those presented.

In the last 12 years, denial rates have been consistently higher than at any time since the 1920s.
. . .

Dr. Servano and his wife, Salvacion, lived for years in the United States with no inkling they might have violated the law. They met in the Philippines when she was a nurse and he was a young traveling doctor. Her strict father insisted she marry, they said, but his family wanted him to wait.

In the early 1980s, their mothers came separately to the United States as legal immigrants and petitioned for residence visas, known as green cards, for Pedro and Salvacion under the category of unmarried children. But between the time the visas were requested and when they were issued in 1985, Pedro and Salvacion, hoping to escape conflicting parental demands, secretly married in the Philippines.

Unaware that their marriage could have violated the terms of their green cards, the Servanos settled in the United States. He completed a second medical residency here and began to practice in blue-collar towns where he made house calls and was known for attention to everyday ills. He and Salvacion married in New Jersey in 1987. They renewed their green cards punctually.

“My goal is to be fully functional and integrated into the society,” Dr. Servano said. They presented their 1991 naturalization applications without seeking a lawyer.

Immigration inspectors reviewing their applications discovered a record of their Philippine marriage. Accused of lying, they were ordered deported. In years of immigration court appeals, the Servanos had no opportunity to present broader evidence of their character, their lawyers said.


Elaine said...

I think you are right that the media is incredibly reductive about immigrants. It is unfortunate, because it reduces the varied experiences of people into a token campaign issue. An article like the one to which you link from the NY Times is much more informative than any sort of analysis piece I have seen about immigration in this year's election.

e.a. (a is for anonymous) petrone said...

The same thing goes on in France and GB. The newspapers infer that all immigrants are "illegal" and that they are not to be trusted. Usually, there is some reference to the fact they don't pay taxes - but that is inaccurate for 2 reasons:
a)they do pay Social Security tax if they are employed, even if they have fraudulent papers, because their employer pays it, and
b) if you would give them a greencard or a visa, maybe they would pay taxes. maybe they WANT to pay taxes by being an active citizen, but you won't let them.

Steph said...

Thanks for your thoughts, e and e. It's too easy to "other"ize immigrants.