Path to U.S. Citizenship Costly, Tedious

For many Americans the Fourth of July is a time to fire up the grill, catch up with family, and watch fireworks. But for thousands of newly naturalized Americans, the Fourth is a day to celebrate their independence from the frustrating, time-consuming process of becoming a citizen.

It’s not the civics tests or pointed questions from federal officials that make the process so hard.

For most, the real stumbling block comes much sooner, when prospective citizens seek to live and work in the United States indefinitely by obtaining the infamous “green card.” And it’s the job-based green card, more so than the family-based one, that causes the most headaches.

Some 140,000 professionals, more than half working in the technology sector, are granted permanent residency out of the nearly 900,000 immigrants America welcomes each year. And it is this group that tends to go through an increasingly costly, risky and tedious process.

The Cost, Monetary and Personal

Fees run into the thousands. Most immigration lawyers charge between $5,000 to $7,500 to accompany a client through the green card process. Some cases can cost closer to $15,000 before adding on application fees and any potential family members.

But the real cost is harder to quantify. Applicants can spend years marked by a feeling of lost opportunity and helplessness as they wait for the process to conclude.

One 45-year-old British-born woman, who asked not to be identified, has been waiting four years for her green card, and still doesn’t have it.

Her limited encounters with the immigration process have been disheartening. “It’s incredibly hard to get information. You have no idea where you are in the process,” she laments. When she called one official in Massachusetts, where she works, she says he told her that “it was his job ‘to make sure I get sent home.’”

Canadian-born Mat Small has worked at a Northern California tech firm for the past three years and also finds his application efforts hard to deal with.

“The process is so opaque,” he says, adding that the Immigration and Naturalization Service can “take over your life. You can’t change jobs, you can’t call and check up on where you are in the process. If this would occur in any other government agency, people would be up in arms.”

Stumbling Blocks

Part of the problem facing these and thousands of others is a multipart employment-based application process with the biggest hurdle right at the start.

The first stage, also known as labor certification, is particularly demanding because the Labor Department must certify that the hiring of a foreign national will not adversely affect the conditions of U.S. workers, says a department spokesman. Attorneys advise that an employer implement a well-thought-out plan with a long-term strategy to ensure the likeliness of approval.

But even with the most careful preparation, delays are typical. “Even before anything goes wrong, green card cases can take a long time mainly because of backlogs at the INS,” explains Steve Ladik, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and Dallas attorney. “A typical company sponsorship case in Dallas has a 24-month wait before the INS even looks at the file.”

Ladik also warns of the new threat posed by rising layoffs. “The market moves much faster than the INS. The volatile economy can jeopardize someone’s whole application. The person can either be laid off or passed up for promotions because a significant change of duties means you have to start all over,” he explains.

Adds Jo Anne Adlerstein, attorney and head of immigration at a New York law firm: “At this point there’s no such thing as a routine [immigration] case.”

Both the INS and the Labor Department are aware of their public perception and say they are working on a solution. The Clinton administration tried to pitch in and ameliorate the backlogs by passing new legislation. But most attorneys agree the laws only made the situation worse.

For all the frustration and time spent waiting, even a successful green card recipient can be left with bittersweet feelings. Says Italian native Elena Olivari, an architect and new permanent resident working in San Francisco: “At the end, it [the process] has nothing to do with you. … The freedom once you get the green card is great. The freedom they took away from you is the worst part.”