Dec 11, 2013
Real American Boy: How Our Byzantine Immigration System and Failed Economy May Have Made a Terrorist
Posted on May 20, 2013
By Susan Zakin
In the introduction to “Rethinking National Identity in the Age of Migration,” Demetrios Papademetriou, the founder of the Washington, D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute, and Ulrich Kober, a former Jesuit priest influential in Germany’s immigrant integration efforts, struck a surprisingly emotional note, emphasizing the importance of “an intangible factor in all this: the feeling of belonging.”
Jones-Correa, who has written several books on Latino immigration to the U.S. and served on the committee that redesigned the U.S. naturalization test for the National Academy of Sciences, says this critical element has been left out of the U.S. discussion of immigration. Countries with successful immigration policies, such as the Netherlands, Canada and Britain, speed immigrants toward full participation, not only with language lessons and civics classes, but also voting rights. The U.S. used to do the same thing.
“Historically, for much of the 19th century, up until 1921, in the majority of states you filed for what were called ‘first papers,’ ” Jones-Correa said. “Those stated that you intended to become a citizen, and in 24 states, that meant you could vote in state and federal elections. The expectation was that you learned how to become a citizen by participating.”
As anti-immigrant feeling took hold in the 1880s, states gradually stopped noncitizen voting. “Now citizenship is seen as a privilege,” Jones-Correa said. “It’s the culmination of a process. We don’t think of participation as something you want to encourage early on. We think of participation as something you do when you’re shown to be worthy.”
Like most Americans, I thought very little about “legal” immigration. My grandparents were Jewish immigrants who fled pogroms, and I’d always been grateful to the United States. I considered myself patriotic, not in a jingoistic way, but in my appreciation for the political philosophers of the Enlightenment whose ideas laid the groundwork for the American experiment. In 2009, I married a man from Kenya. From the day in Nairobi when a consular official told me that my husband—then my boyfriend—would be unable to get a visa to visit me in the U.S., I felt that my own rights were being abrogated. My husband and I were considered guilty until proven innocent. Even on the forms we had to fill out, the language sounded arrogant: Fiances or spouses applying for visas are called “beneficiaries.” The process is expensive and has been dragging on for years. A mistake on an application might mean I won’t see my husband for months, or that he’s unable to travel to his home country for fear that he won’t be able to return. I began to see the America that people in other nations see, and it was completely different from the land of my childhood.
I cannot count the times I’ve said to my husband, “America really isn’t like this.”
I’m not sure he believes me. I don’t know if I believe it myself.
By the time we started the process, the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service), had receded into history. Since the Bush administration, two separate agencies handle immigration. The U.S. Department of State issues visas, but the bulk of the work is done by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, established after 9/11.
The State Department, not always a model of efficiency in its consular sections abroad, has set up a system with a 24-hour turnaround by email in the U.S. By contrast, USCIS is notoriously hard to reach by telephone and slow to respond to queries. It is impossible to speak to anyone who actually handles paperwork; all calls are routed to a call center. Processing times stretch into months or years. Horror stories of punitive measures triggered by a change of address, or a lost submission, are common.
In short, the U.S. immigration system functions like bureaucracies in countries we consider undemocratic, inefficient and oppressive: the former Soviet Union perhaps or an African nation mired in corruption. High fees and long waits are a substantial burden to many families, and create a class of people who are in America but not completely of it. Part of the problem is budgetary, but the basis of the USCIS funding problem seems to be the underlying attitude that immigration is not a normal function of government, and that immigrants add nothing of value to American life, even if they happen to be Internet entrepreneurs or internationally recognized scientists.
“The U.S. has this weird provision,” Jones-Correa said. “The USCIS has to be self-funded, through the fees from the naturalization process and the green card process. Immigrants themselves, and their family members, pay for the program’s budget. There is no other country for which that’s the case.”
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