Medill Reports: Journey to citizenship not without its bumps

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Yong Zhang woke up Wednesday to her last day as a Chinese citizen.

She joined 144 other immigrants for an oath ceremony at noon and surrendered her green card for a glossy certificate officially deeming her an American.

“I’m not nervous, just excited,” Zhang said. But she almost didn’t make it.
The CTA announced while she was on the red line to the federal courthouse in downtown Chicago that all passengers would have to disembark and go to the northbound platform to get on another train.

Lucky for Zhang, she has been taking English classes to help her navigate her new country.

“If she didn’t understand what they said, she would probably have stood and waited,” said Daisy Liu, Zhang’s English and citizenship teacher at the Chinese Mutual Aid Association. The organization provides free classes and assistance in the citizenship application process.

Zhang is one of nearly 700,000 citizens who are naturalized annually, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Record numbers of immigrants have applied for citizenship since the government announced that the application fees will more than double on July 30. More than 4,000 new citizens were sworn in July 4 alone.

One of this year’s newest citizens, Sally Velasco, waited 16 years before applying for citizenship in December. She emigrated from the Philippines in 1990 and maintains dual citizenship, available for some countries.

“I was too lazy to apply,” said Velasco, whose husband was born an American citizen. “But when we travel, if you’re a resident, you have to fall in a different line at immigration. It’s more of a convenience than any other reason to be a citizen.”

Velasco’s application was processed in five months, considered a little longer than typical. But compared to what Tariq Saeed faced, hers was a walk in the park.

Saeed, who lives in Lombard, waited three years while the FBI conducted a name check, a process that typically takes a few days. He and his wife applied together in March 2004; she received her citizenship later that year.

“We thought it was OK and [that] the procedure took this long,” Saeed said. “But after a few months I learned that in Chicago at least five other husbands had not cleared their citizenship and were in the same situation.”

Saeed contacted the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which filed a class-action suit on behalf of the individuals. He became a citizen in March.

“We found that only 1 percent of individuals are caught up in this delay,” Bitta Mostofi, CAIR staff attorney, said. “But the numbers as to how many people were delayed used to be two [or so] a year. In the past two years, they have been in the hundreds of thousands.”

A government report said that as of May of this year “a staggering 329,160 FBI name check cases [were] pending, with approximately 64 percent of those cases pending more than 90 days.”

The report recognized the burden that delays can cause applicants — including loss of employment, difficulty obtaining drivers’ licenses, difficulty obtaining credit and student loans, and disqualification from in-state tuition — and recommended a more streamlined process.

The fee increases will help pay the cost of the streamlining.

But many community organizations, including Chinese Mutual Aid Association argue that the increased fees place a greater burden on the already-strapped budgets of working class immigrants.

“Maybe it’s not a lot of money for an individual to pay $675,” Liu said. “But for a family of four, $2,700 is really not a small amount.” A fee waiver is available, but only a small pool of poor applicants qualifies.

Liu said the current citizenship process is already difficult for limited English-speaking applicants or those who can’t afford lawyers.

“I moved to this country for a better and more peaceful life,” Saeed said. “I raised my kids in this country. I have been paying taxes the whole time. When I contribute to this country, I want all the rights and responsibilities as well. I believe it’s my civil obligation [to become a citizen].”

Zhang too cites wanting a better life for her 4-year-old daughter as an important reason for becoming American — that, and sponsoring her parents and siblings for visas.

“I really miss them and want them here with me,” Zhang said. “They will have better opportunities in America, especially for their children.”

The Senate immigration bill threatened to limit family-sponsored visas in favor of high-skilled worker visas. Although the bill was killed last month, any future legislation is likely to restrict the number of family-sponsored visas.

That riled Asian-American organizations. Many Asian immigrants — including Zhang and Velasco — come to the U.S. through family sponsorship. Some family members wait many years before being considered for visas.

The Chicago area ranks fifth nationally in the size of its immigrant population. In 2003, Roosevelt University’s Institute for Metropolitan Affairs reported that 1.4 million immigrants live in metro Chicago, representing nearly 18 percent of the region’s population.

“The remarkable thing is people wait for up to two decades to get into this country,” Liu said. “And two decades later, they still want to come.”

Copyright © 2007, Medill Reports