At the dawn of a Trump presidency, there is much debate about policies proposed for the purpose of getting elected and those that will actually be implemented. For immigrants going through the residency or citizenship process, the future is tenuous. On top of heightened security and lengthened process post 9/11, recent anti-immigrant rhetoric in the country has many new immigrants worried whether and how they will be allowed to complete the process.
To acquire permission to work in the United States or to obtain residency or citizenship, interested parties should consult the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) web site at: www.uscls.gov. This month the agency will hold 26 information sessions in California, New Jersey, Florida, Massachusetts, Hawaii and New York. Fourteen will be provided in English, 10 in both English and Spanish, one will be held exclusively in Spanish and one will be conducted in both Creole and French.
With specific questions, the website provides online assistance through the system called “Emma.” The “virtual assistant,” humanized as a woman in the top right of the computer screen, answers questions in English and Spanish. Responses are provided almost instantly. The site also features, “10 Steps to Naturalization,” a good starting point for those looking to live and work in the United States. Nearly the entire website is also provided in Spanish.
Romelia Ulibarri is well familiar with the immigration process which she started in 1997 when she first came to Colorado from Mexico and quickly acquired a Social Security card. She acknowledges that the process is very different after 9/11. “My situation was really easy. I had a passport from Mexico and came here legally with a permit for six months. During my stay my brother applied for me.” Her circumstances changed when she met her New Mexican born husband, and she had to apply as a married couple. “The process is different for every country. I had the opportunity to do everything legally from the beginning.” In her process of becoming a citizen she received a three-year residency, then applied for permanent residency. After she received her permanent resident status she had to wait four years to apply for citizenship. Now she is studying for the citizenship exam. “This is a hard part because there are 100 questions to know and you are asked any 10 of them. You have to present a written test and sometimes have a conversation test. Luckily there are libraries that help with classes for free and other organizations that help like Mi Familia Vota.”
For Ulibarri, U.S. citizenship is well worth the struggle. “I have to do everything correctly if I want to be a part of this country. The country has given me a lot of opportunities. I look forward to voting, that’s one of the principal things I want to do.”
Thai born Poonthawil Koucherik received her citizenship last year in time to vote in her first U.S. presidential election. She and her tightly-knit group of Thai friends in the Denver area helped each other through the citizenship process and together mulled the voting system. First coming to the United States on a fiancée visa, Poonthawil and her husband Jim, found navigating the U.S. Embassy in Thailand, “difficult,” but it didn’t stop Jim from completing the rest of the eight year citizenship process without the assistance of an attorney which he believes would have cost ten times as much. “It took her [Poonthawil] five years to get her green card. We filled out form after form that seemed to ask for the very same information.” He characterizes the study materials the U.S. immigration office makes available as “good” but found some working for the agency during the interview process to be downright “nasty.” Still, Jim valued the process for his new wife. “The process gave her an opportunity to learn about the history of our country. Freedom is not free and citizenship is not something you walk in and take, you have to work to get it.”
For Poonthawil’s kids, the process has just begun. Even though their mother is now a citizen, Jim has been told that it will take around nine years for his stepchildren to be allowed entry into the United States as residents.
Debbie Cannon is the USCIS Public Affairs Officer for western states Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Montana and Idaho. She wants to get the word out that would-be immigrants are often targets of scams like getting them to pay for immigration forms which are free and available online. “We don’t want immigrants to become victims of an immigration scam. If you need legal advice on immigration matters, make sure the person helping you is authorized to give legal advice. Only an attorney or an accredited representative working for a Department of Justice (DOJ)’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) recognized organization can give you legal advice.”
Cannon also notes that, “Our website has won awards for being user friendly. The entire web site is in Spanish, with several sets of supporting materials in Spanish. We have partnered with numerous libraries that have our materials. With some people feeling anxious or uncertain, I want to make sure they go to our site. We can save some people some grief up front.”
The agency has also partnered with the National Park Service to hold some of the more spectacular naturalization ceremonies. At least once a year, one ceremony is held at a Colorado national monument.
As in other parts of the country, immigrants settling in Colorado are largely a reflection of countries with proximate borders. According to Cannon, “In 2016, immigrants came from 51 different countries. In Colorado, one-third to one-half come from Mexico because that is the nearest border. Immigrants come for a variety of reasons: war, strife, economic difficulty… People come from many countries and professions which makes it fascinating. A week ago, a Guatemalan father and his daughter naturalized. They make musical instruments and brought that skill to the U.S.. You just never know, immigrants are a very diverse set of people.”
Cannon points to differences in states regarding the number of immigrants. “In California, we hold ceremonies at the L.A. Convention Center for thousands of people. In Colorado we just held a ceremony in Centennial for 60 people.” In 2016 over 8,700 naturalized while in other western states, the number of new citizens was fewer; Idaho had 1,410, Montana 310, and Utah 3,691. Cannon attributes the differences in numbers to, “Where numbers of organizations can help, where relatives have settled, and obviously, where there are job opportunities.”
Cannon won’t guess how the immigration process could change under a Trump presidency. “I couldn’t speculate on that. We are all sitting here waiting and will proceed accordingly.”