Becoming a naturalized citizen of the United States can take years to happen, set immigrants and their families back thousands of dollars, and in some cases, all of that time and money is for naught.
But those who have successfully gone through the process, like Sheila and Josue Fuentes, say, “It’s definitely worth it.”
Sheila, 26, and Josue Fuentes, 33, of Fairfield, invested nearly $4,000 in application fees before Josue, a native of Venezuela, became a naturalized citizen on June 27. They decided to not retain an immigration attorney, said Sheila Fuentes, who grew up in West Chester Twp., because their cost could have easily been doubled “and for a young couple just starting out, that would have been difficult.”
“The process is very frustrating,” said Sheila Fuentes, but added it is worth the headaches “if you’re in love with the person. I don’t know how people go through this process if they weren’t in love with the person.”
Legal immigration continues to be a hot-button issue on the national and local political stage, especially following the city of Cincinnati’s July announcement to be the most immigrant-friendly city in the country. The announcement by Mayor John Cranley, as he was flanked by local leaders around the city, many of whom are naturalized citizens, followed a similar sentiment expressed by the city of Dayton a few years earlier.
From 2009 to 2013, nearly 3.6 million people became naturalized citizens, and 46,873 of those people lived in Ohio when they became citizens. And these people had to wait at least three to five years, depending on what type of Green Card they obtained to be legal permanent residents, before they could think about applying to be a citizen.
Since Cranley’s announcement this summer, public discussion — and in some cases contention — ensued. The Journal-News is taking a closer look into the issue of immigration to find out how an immigrant becomes a legal resident and a naturalized citizen. And what appears to be a seemingly simple process — fill out paperwork, pay fees, take a test, and wait for the “yes” or “no” — is wraught with nuances that many immigrants agonize over.
“I don’t know of anyone who did it on their own quite like we did,” said Sheila.
The couple met in 2008 while Sheila was studying in Spain, and for the first two years of their relationship they only spoke in Spanish.
Once they got engaged, the couple applied for a fiancé visa, which granted Josue a conditional Green Card. Another application after the couple married in 2010 got the condition removed. The couple had to apply for Josue’s citizenship twice – the initial application was denied at the end of the process because the Fuentes’ were not in Ohio after moving back from California for three consecutive months — something that should have alerted officials to deny the application at the beginning.
After numerous interviews to prove they were a legitimate couple and providing documents upon documents of proof — and pregnancy without a paternity test is not considered proof, Sheila said — on June 27, Josue took his oath of citizenship. Their 7-month-old son was by his side.
About 1.5 percent of naturalized citizens every year are in Ohio, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. In the Cincinnati-Middletown core-based statistical area, India has been the top country of origin of legal immigrants becoming citizens from fiscal years 2008 to 2012. Legal immigrants from China and Mexico were consistently two of the top five countries of origin over that span.
Once an immigrant meets the minimum residency standards after obtaining a Green Card, the process of becoming a citizen can be simple, said Helaine Tasch, Cincinnati Field Office Director for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
“Everyone that we see has undertaken a very long journey to the point that they are eligible to naturalize,” she said. “Although their experiences are diverse, they all made the decision at some point in their lives to go through this process.”
José Gutierrez moved to the United States from Mexico at age 12 in 1998, after his father had moved and been approved for residency in the late 1980s and his mother followed in the early 1990s.
“At the time (they first submitted the petition), they didn’t speak English, and there weren’t many people here who spoke Spanish who could help them,” he said. The first attorney his parents hired wasn’t much help after taking their money, so “they gave up and didn’t pay any more attention to it,” he said.
It wasn’t until Gutierrez was a high school student in Hamilton that his mother renewed her efforts to gain residency for herself and her son. After connecting with another attorney, the family discovered that those documents they had worked on in the early ‘90s had, in fact, been submitted, and they needed only to continue the process to move through the system.
“Our documentation was based on the immigration laws as they were written back then, which made it a whole lot easier,” Gutierrez said. “If we had applied in 2003-2004, I can guarantee you I wouldn’t be a resident right now.”
Gutierrez said that this lengthy and complicated process and the amount of money needed to move it forward are what prevent many immigrants from even beginning the process to become a resident.
To cross the border illegally to begin the process in the United States, immigrants can pay thousands of dollars just to ensure their safety and success. Back in 1998, Gutierrez’s family paid $3,000 to ensure his safety along the route to the border; now, immigrants pay about $5,000 to $6,000 per person, Gutierrez said.
“It makes me angry when people say ‘why don’t they (immigrants applying for residency) just have their documents in order,” he added. “If it were that easy, we wouldn’t be having this problem.”
Speaker of the House John Boehner has taken a hard line on immigration reform, but has been consistent about saying securing the country’s borders needs to happen before reform can happen.
“He supports step-by-step immigration reform focused on the country’s economic needs and national security — that starts with securing our borders,” said spokeswoman Kara Hauck.
In July, the speaker said the House would not back Senate-passed bill on addressing the southern border crisis.
“The House of Representatives will not take up the Senate immigration reform bill or accept it back from the Senate in any fashion. Nor will we accept any attempt to add any other comprehensive immigration reform bill or anything like it, including the DREAM Act, to the House’s targeted legislation, which is meant to fix the actual problems causing the border crisis,” said Boehner.
U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Cincinnati, said the immigration system is broken.
“These long wait times punish those who want to come here legally and also encourage illegal immigration,” said Portman. “We do need to streamline this process as part of a comprehensive strategy that not only secures our border, but also puts in place measures that will deter individuals who enter this country illegally to work. Without addressing the magnet of employment that draws people here illegally, I believe any immigration reform effort will unfortunately fail.”
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Avon, agreed with Portman and said, “It’s time that Congress fix our broken immigration system.”
“For more than a year, the Senate-passed plan has waited in limbo in the House. This plan offers fair reforms that would strengthen our borders, put American workers and businesses first, and create jobs,” said Brown. “As we have seen in past months, continuing on with a status-quo approach to immigration policy is unacceptable. For many, the process of applying for citizenship requires years, if not decades, of waiting and has steep financial barriers to families fleeing hardships.
Lengthy process to become an American
As he prepares to receive his master’s degree in May 2015, Gutierrez also prepares to apply for citizenship. While his father, a construction worker in Cincinnati, first petitioned for his wife and eldest son to become U.S. residents between 1992 and 1994, it wasn’t until mid-2006 that Gutierrez held the residency card in his hands.
Once an application is made — which is a 21-page form, various documents and photos, and a $595 application and $85 biometrics services fees — it’s a waiting game of sorts.
The process takes on average six months, though in the Cincinnati and Dayton areas that average is closer to four months, and includes an interview and pages upon pages of submitted documents and photographs, Tasch said. In one of several oath of allegiance ceremonies, she said the Cincinnati field office has between 50 to 70, on average, legal permanent residents turn in their Green Card and take the oath to become a U.S. citizen.
“I just think naturalization is important for the nation … and we’re very glad that they applied for naturalization and we’re happy to see them become citizens,” she said.
At any given naturalization ceremony, Tasch said as many as 25 countries could be represented by the people becoming an American citizen, “which is really a gift to the country because diversity is our strength.”
But to get to this point of applying to become an American citizen can be a long process, and costly.
Just in filing fees for a Green Card, an immigrant can spend more than $1,000 to try to become a permanent legal resident. If they hire an immigration attorney, it could cost them thousands of dollars to be a legal resident, and if they desire, a U.S. citizen.
Fairfield attorney Cassandra Rodriguez helps illegal immigrants become legal residents and subsequently, if they desire, legal residents become naturalized citizens.
“Our immigration system is not set up to welcome the poor, the hungry, the huddled masses,” she said. “It makes me mad thinking about the Statue of Liberty.”
When the United States was a young country, the pathway to citizenship or legal residence was easier, Rodriguez said. All immigrants were welcomed and could become citizens, permanent legal residents or just be visitors. Now, she said, unless you have a high degree or money, “It’s very hard to get here.”
The complicated process and priority lists can drive some individuals to commit fraud in order to bring foreign citizens over faster. Since spouses of U.S. citizens have faster priority dates, marriage fraud is a common issue.
Rodriguez said she can understand why people are driven to commit marriage fraud to stay here because often “there’s no other way.”
The not-for-profit Healing Center in Cincinnati provides foreign citizens applying for legal residency or citizenship with resources such as pro-bono legal aid, translators and education opportunities. Shaina Horner, Hispanic Services and Adult Education coordinator for the center, acknowledged the controversy surrounding the topic of immigration, but stressed the importance of viewing each applicant as “a person.”
“Immigration is something that is a heavy topic in the media, something that has a lot of controversy around, but for me, when people come in to see me regardless of what country they came from, this is a person,” she said. “Issues like (immigration) have become so politicized that people lose their humanity.”