The track to citizenship in the United States isn’t so simple that any person from another country can just get in line and sign up to become a citizen. Elkin attorney Cynthia Gonzalez works in immigration law, assisting immigrants in securing legal means of staying in the States.
President Barack Obama first enacted through executive order in 2012 the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) program to allow immigrants who were brought to the United States as undocumented minors a means for staying in the country, which for some is the only home they remember. DACA allows those in the program to be approved every two years to remain in the US as long as they are either working or being educated, Gonzalez explained recently.
DACA does not provide a track to legalization for those undocumented immigrants in the program though.
After President Donald Trump was sworn into office, he announced he would end the DACA program, but it is up to Congress to decide on a new program to replace DACA. Three Republican senators, including North Carolina’s Thom Tillis, introduced the Solution for Undocumented Children through Careers, Employment, Education and Defending our Nation Act (SUCCEED) on Sept. 25.
Since its introduction, the proposed bill has been moved the Senate Judiciary Committee. SUCCEED would provide a track to legal permanent residency, but it is a 15-year process.
Just as with DACA, those young undocumented immigrants could be disqualified and deported under the proposed SUCCEED if they commit a crime.
Gonzalez said those young adults who participate in DACA risk their families when they sign up for the program, because the initial application includes background checks, being fingerprinted and turning over all of their personal information to be authorized to participate.
“They are taking a risk, because they are handing over all of their information — where they are employed, their school, address history in the United States, fingerprints, birth certificate and parents’ information for a chance to stay and work or be educated,” she explained. “They are putting at risk their family and themselves.”
She said if a new law regarding those young immigrants isn’t enacted within six months of the announcement by Trump, then they will all be out of authorization when DACA officially ends.
While some of those immigrants who are undocumented want a way to stay in the United States legally, there is no path to become a legal permanent resident as some people would imply when they say undocumented, or illegal, immigrants should just “get in line.”
“You can’t become a citizen right off the bat,” Gonzalez explained. “The majority of immigrants have work authorization for a certain amount of time, then they have to get permanent residency and a lot of times it is at least five years before they are considered for citizenship, and that’s if they are married to a U.S. citizen.”
She said people from other countries can’t just say they want to live in and become a U.S. citizen. “There has to be a path for them, and they are very limited,” said Gonzalez.
To be considered for permanent legal residency and eventually citizenship, a person must be married to a U.S. citizen and that spouse has to petition for the immigrant, or a family member over the age of 21 who is a citizen has to petition for the immigrant.
“There is no general line or general application to become what legal is,” she said. “If there were, we wouldn’t have this problem.”
Just to get into the United States legally can be complicated, Gonzalez said, explaining there are limited ways to come to the States.
One of those is through a tourist visa allowing a six-month visit before the person has to return to their own country, she said.
Also, there are programs that U.S. employers can apply for to allow them to hire immigrants to work in the United States, but those employers must show there is a need not being met by citizens. Many of those programs are either through agriculture and farming, or are for highly-educated positions such as the banking or health industry.
She said some of the immigrants who come to the United States are doing so out of necessity, to get away from the drug cartels. “Those in countries at war with the drug cartel are left with no food or means. They make the decision that so many did in history,” Gonzalez said of those seeking asylum.
For undocumented parents of children born in the United States, who are citizens, Gonzalez said, “Even now the law says, even if your child is old enough to petition for you, the law requires them to return to their country for 10 years. Some have mortgages and own homes here, they don’t have a place to live there.”
When Gonzalez and her husband moved to the Yadkin Valley from California, she said, “Everyone was so kind and friendly, and we began hearing we are in the Bible belt. The people are so proud of being Christians and helping their neighbor, and I thought that was so beautiful. Then I started hearing hateful comments about people who are illegal.”
She said some parents are here because they don’t want their children growing up where they will starve or be taken as a slave by the drug cartel. “I think how could you be a Christian, and you’re doing the Lord’s work and have these thoughts,” Gonzalez said.
“Their defense is ‘illegal is illegal.’ At one time, it was illegal for you and I to vote because we are women, but that didn’t make it right. It was illegal for African-Americans to drink from the same water fountain as whites, but it wasn’t right.
“Just because something is illegal doesn’t make it right,” she said. “The law is wrong, and it needs to be changed.”
For many of the undocumented immigrants, Gonzalez, who went to school with the intention of becoming an immigration attorney, said they have no process they can go through to become documented residents.
“There is no legal path for the majority. If there was, I guarantee they would have done it a long time ago,” she said.
Even the SUCCEED Act comes up short some people believe, citing the lengthy 15-year process to citizenship, because for DACA recipients who are 25 or 30 that would mean being 40 or 45 before they are citizens.
Also, SUCCEED has age limitations, meaning there is a gap in those eligible for the program. To qualify for the first five-year conditional permanent resident status, the immigrants had to have come to the United States before they were 16 and been continuously living here since at least June 15, 2012, and prove that as of June 15, 2012, they were younger than 31 and didn’t have lawful status.
Gonzalez encouraged Yadkin Valley residents to get in touch with their Congress members. “We want some kind of reform where people can be documented,” she said of the need for a more encompassing law to provide additional paths to legalization.
Wendy Byerly Wood may be reached at 336-258-4035 or on Twitter @wendywoodeditor.