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Thursday, June 29, 2006 02:33 pm

The price of citizenship

Why are we allowing immigration policy to turn restrictive and punitive?

The image of the United States is of a country that provides refuge for people who desire freedom and opportunity — yet the latest round of immigration “reform,” which targets “unwanted” or “undesirable” immigrants from south of our border, reinforces a history of immigration practices that have been filled with hostility toward those wanting to come here, particularly from non-Western European countries.

Even without any changes to current laws, stories abound about rude, arbitrary treatment by American officials in embassies and immigration offices abroad and at home of individuals who desire to visit, move to, or become U.S. citizens. The post-9/11 move of U.S. immigration offices into the Department of Homeland Security is also a not-so-subtle signal that America’s priorities are to continue a punitive immigration policy that focuses on potential threats rather than on welcoming people who seek to escape oppression and poverty in their own countries and who can make contributions to America.

It was a common belief when I was growing up that if a foreign-born individual married an American citizen, that individual would automatically become an American citizen. Certainly it was seen as relatively easy for the spouse to become an American citizen. Yet, in more recent years, U.S. citizens who marry foreign-born spouses, either abroad or here in the United States, have to struggle through a daunting bureaucratic maze. Those foreigners are often treated with suspicion and hostility by American officials and are required to decipher rules that are not readily understood even by native speakers — and it takes years before foreign-born spouses can actually become citizens.

It seems as if almost everyone who has had to deal with the immigration of friends or loved ones has a story that describes challenges and difficulties in the process. My daughter’s case is a relatively benign example. After teaching in Japan for more than three years, she decided to get married to a Japanese citizen. She had to carefully research the rules relating to marriage to a foreign national to avoid the many visa problems that she had heard about or observed. Because of the complexity and uncertainties of the process, at one point we had to consult an immigration lawyer. When she and my son-in-law moved to the United States, I thought that the process would become easier, but instead every step seemed fraught with land mines: If a date is missed, might he be deported? Can he go home to visit his parents without risk, or will he face not being able to return for several years? The stories from others indicate that all the cautions and care that my daughter took are necessary, but they are not always sufficient protective measures.

We have heard that applicant spouses are often asked in their citizenship interviews the most personal questions about their lives to satisfy American officials that they did not marry on false pretenses. We listen to their voiced fears that if the official doesn’t like you, for any reason, you can be turned down. We heard that if you miss one deadline in the process, you can be deported. The process is clearly weighted against even the most honest and well-intentioned applicants.

Shouldn’t we be looking in a welcoming manner at those wanting to become part of this great country? And once somebody lives and works here for many years while applying to become a citizen, shouldn’t the process be relatively routine, with established guidelines and boundaries so that individual government officials’ arbitrariness is curbed?

But that is not the way our system works. A recent experience of a friend from Asia serves as another example. After living, working, and owning businesses in America for more than 13 years, my friend went into his final citizenship interview anticipating that he would proudly become an American citizen. He faced questioning from an immigration official that was, at best, rude. When asked whether he was married, he said yes and, when asked, said that his wife was from a country different from his own. The official then asked, “Why did you marry someone from a different country?” After asking my friend how long he had been married and being told that it had been many years, the questioner then asked whether the friend had children. The response was no. “Why not?” asked the official. “Is there something wrong with you?” “Did you pay your taxes each year?” he was asked. “Yes,” my friend responded. “Can you prove you paid your taxes?” was the retort. “Of course,” my friend responded, “but I was not asked to bring tax returns to an application for citizenship. So how can I prove it to you now?”

The questioning went on for more than an hour, while other applicants were questioned and able to leave within 10 to 15 minutes. Finally, at the end of nearly an hour-long grilling, the official asked him to write a sentence in English: “America is the land of the free.” My friend wrote the sentence but could not refrain from smiling at the irony of its content in light of the way he was being treated. The official, noting the smile, quickly quizzed my friend: “Why are you smiling? Do you think this is funny? Do you disagree with this sentence?” Of course, all my friend could do was to be conciliatory and hope that he could pass the interview — the last step to becoming a citizen. My friend finally passed, whereupon the immigration official began a lengthy description of the wonderful ceremony he could now participate in to celebrate becoming an American citizen.

Later that same day I stopped by to visit with my friend, hoping to congratulate him on what I expected had been a routine rite of passage. Instead, he shared his frustration and some anger about the way in which he had been treated. After listening to his story, I could only react with embarrassment — embarrassment that an American official would treat a good, honest individual in this manner.

Government arrogance and the move toward punitive policy have continued in recent weeks as members of Congress have debated immigration reform. Although legislation coming out of the U.S. House openly represents a punitive approach to immigration from Mexico, less obvious examples, such as a mandate to have one language and culture, always couched within a framework of patriotic support for America, have emerged. One example was the amendment by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, requiring people who seek to become citizens to be literate in English. Although it is admirable to try to have as many people as possible understand English in this country, it has never been a law, and many of us came from families whose older members rarely spoke English. Indeed, Cornyn’s own rule would be impossible to attain because under current law anyone born in the United States is a citizen, regardless of whether he or she ever learns to read English. So every day there are new citizens who do not have to go through the difficult application process and yet may not speak the language. There are many people in this country, including those living in their own ethnic enclaves — law-abiding, hard-working, taxpaying individuals — who don’t use English as their primary language. Should they be vulnerable to official harassment, mistreatment, or deportation? Though it is an important goal to have a common means of communication, certainly there are better ways of achieving it than linking it to xenophobic policies.

America certainly faces difficult challenges in trying to control who can migrate to this country and attain citizenship. We don’t want to admit terrorists or others who might be a danger to us. And there might even be legitimate questions regarding how many new citizens we can accommodate. At the same time, we need to recognize and not repeat the historic practice wherein Congress has used immigration laws as a tool of discrimination and arbitrary power. At times in our past, America has opened its doors to people from Western European countries, particularly English-speaking ones, while limiting others from racially and religiously different countries. However, our greatest growth in recent years has been from countries with non-Western languages and cultures. We must avoid a xenophobic or racist response to these changes, as sometimes appears evident in the current debate, which is focused on controlling immigration from Mexico, and it should be openly acknowledged that the changes will impact upon all immigrants.

With few exceptions, all of us are the children of recent immigrants, and our success rate in carving out a better life in this country seems to have been relatively high. Indeed, one has to wonder whether our own success in gaining material wealth isn’t one reason Americans today tolerate or support punitive policies and practices against new applicants wanting to join the “club” of American opportunity. Have we achieved so much that we don’t want others to intrude upon or spoil it? Is it fear of the stranger who could inflict another 9/11 that motivates our Washington officials, or a base and atavistic fear of any other, or perhaps simply a fear that our own quality of life must decline if we allow others the same opportunities we enjoy?

As I look at my friends from India, China, Cambodia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, Taiwan, Japan, and elsewhere, I feel kinship with them; they are good, honest folks. They work hard and for the most part are being educated in our schools. They obey the laws and pay taxes. They would make Americans of whom we could all be proud — and, in more ways then can be listed here, they remind me of the immigrant generations who came to America in the past two centuries, immigrants who have made America great.

The United States is the most diverse nation in the world. It is time that we welcomed and celebrated that diversity in all that we do. We can begin by reviewing our immigration laws with these folks in mind and not try to structure rules to keep out those who don’t fit the white-European mold that our decision-makers so commonly reflect. And we can send a clear message to those who make our laws and those who work for the immigration agencies and our diplomatic corps that while we want to exclude those who pose a real threat to our nation, they must be cordial, welcoming, and fair to all others.


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