Civics Essential: the path to citizenship and legal status for immigrants

Oxana Prokhorova, a Russian immigrant and now head of global engagement for the University of Cincinnati, remembers the fear and sense of irony she felt in 2007 while addressing a conference in Dayton on how to conduct business overseas.

“I’m talking to a room full of 200 CEOs for one and a half hours, and they have no idea I am an illegal alien or that I drove to that conference from my home with an expired license that I can’t renew,” she says. “It’s mortifying, but it’s sad, too, that one’s knowledge, experience, and human value depends on immigration status.”

After receiving her master’s degree in business administration from Xavier University in 2001, Oxana obtained an H-1B visa that allows an immigrant to work and live in the U.S., then went to work for a locally based global merchandising company.

When her company relocated her to China in 2004, her visa was automatically voided as soon as she left U.S. territory. Her company started the green card process to establish her legal residency. But when she returned to the States in 2007, she received a deportation order instead of the green card, giving her 120 days to leave the country or be deported. While she appealed the ruling, her driver’s license expired and she was not permitted to work. Instead, she started her own consulting business.

But for the next two years, she drove without a license and lived in fear that she and her daughter, a student at Indian Hill Elementary School, would be forced back to the country she defected from in 1993.

“You can see how the system not only forces you to be illegal, but to violate other rules because you have to survive,” she says. “You have to have groceries. You have to be able to drive.”

While most of the recent media attention has been focused on our Southern border and the challenges of illegal immigrants, those who come here legally say they face their own challenges on the path to U.S. citizenship.

“I have two master’s degrees. I speak three languages,” Prokhorova says. “But they make it very difficult (to obtain legal residency) unless you are a well-known scientist or have some knowledge in the defense area.”

Prokhorova says what saved her was the consulting work she was doing for the U.S. Dept. of Commerce — efforts that she could cite when she wrote for help from then-Ohio Sen. George Voinovich, a member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee.

“Once Voinovich intervened, my case was resolved within a couple months,” she says. “It was a true miracle. I should have been deported. But others are not so lucky, especially those who lack education and resources.”

Getting a share of the American Dream has never been easy for those who leave behind their homelands and their loved ones. But immigrants and immigration law experts say the path to citizenship has become even more difficult under the current administration and the new political climate that favors “America first.”

“It’s a wholesale effort to restrict immigration — legal or illegal — at every stage of the process,” said Rob Cohen, a Columbus attorney who specializes in helping companies get “high-tech” or H-1B visas for foreign-born employees.

Immigration officials are looking for even minor paperwork discrepancies as a reason to reject applications and deport immigrants, some who have been working and paying taxes in the U.S. for years, attorneys say. Applications for green cards are often delayed by further requests for evidence to back up documents. And cases that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services used to process quickly in-house are being referred to immigration court.

Allison Herre, an immigration attorney for Catholic Charities of Southwestern Ohio, says the pressure is coming from the top.

“The Dept. of Justice is making it harder for immigration judges to be truly independent arbiters of the law,” she says.

New department rules require judges to close at least 700 cases a year while limiting their ability to grant continuances that would allow immigrants time to find a lawyer and build a case.

Quotas and categories that haven’t changed since the last attempt at immigration reform in the 1980s still play a key role in determining which immigrants are allowed to enter the country as well as stay and work here. About 68 percent of immigrants receive green cards as spouses or minor children of other immigrants. Another 12 percent obtain green cards with the help of companies that employ them. Refugees seeking safety from persecution in their countries account for 10 percent of green card recipients.

Attorneys say refugees have come under the most scrutiny by immigration officials. Those who can’t recall specific dates and places are often threatened with deportation.

“Many of these people have experienced traumatic life experiences,” says Nazli Memodova, a Cincinnati immigration attorney. “They’re not educated. They don’t know the language. And they may have spent years in refugee camps before coming here. For them to remember the address and zip code of where they lived even five years ago can be a challenge.”

Fewer refugees are being admitted to the U.S. under the Trump administration. Nearly 85,000 were accepted in fiscal year 2016, a number that dropped to fewer than 54,000 in 2017, according to the Pew Research Center. For fiscal year 2018, the number has been capped at 45,000, the lowest since Congress created the modern refugee program in 1980.

“All the humanity has gone out of the system,” says Julie LeMaster, an attorney in Cincinnati.

Alhassane Moussa with his two kids at their home in Lockland.

Consider the case of Alhassane Moussa, a resident of Lockland, Ohio who has been living in the U.S. as a political refugee since 2001. Moussa fled Mauritania not long after his father was executed for being part of a slavery rebellion against the country’s Arab-dominated government. Moussa moved from New York City to Cincinnati a year ago for a job in an auto parts assembly plant. He liked the area so much he sent for his wife and two young children, ages 2 and 4.

As a quality control supervisor, Moussa makes enough money to support his family here and to send money back to Mauritania to support his 80-year-old mother. Since 2012, Moussa has been allowed to live in the U.S. under a work authorization as long as he reports to immigration authorities, stays out of legal trouble, and gives notice of any change of address within 48 hours.

But after his last report a year ago, immigration officials insisted he provide documentation to show why his real name is slightly different than the name on his passport. Moussa told them that masking his real name on his passport was the only way he could have eluded Mauritanian authorities when he fled the country. Even so, he has been threatened with deportation unless he can obtain further documents from Mauritania — something Moussa says is nearly impossible for black people.

“I am working. I file my taxes. I don’t hurt nobody. I don’t go to jail,” Moussa says in his halting English. “But the judge tells me my country doesn’t have any problems any more. ‘You go home,’ he says. I tell him I have my wife and children here. I know in my country people are hungry. People die every day because the government is corrupt and discriminatory.”

Herre says even applications for legal residency from victims of domestic abuse and human trafficking are being denied.

“And it’s more daunting to apply,” Herre says, “because if you’re denied, you could be detained and deported.”

Immigrants and their attorneys say too many Americans have either forgotten or are unaware of the many contributions that immigrants have made to the American economy and its workforce over the centuries. Ohio, home to more than 500,000 foreign-born residents, is no exception.

Despite being just 4 percent of the state’s population, immigrants in Ohio account for nearly 12 percent of all workers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and medicine (STEM), according to the New American Economy, a bipartisan research and advocacy organization for immigrants. And twice as many immigrants in Ohio (21.3 percent) have advanced degrees compared to native-born residents (9. 8 percent).

Immigrants in Ohio paid $4.4 billion in taxes in 2016, spent $11.7 billion dollars here, and created 122,404 jobs by starting their own businesses. Nationally, America’s 44 million immigrants, or 14 percent of its population, paid nearly $380 billion in taxes, and, as entrepreneurs, created jobs for close to 8 million Americans.

Another 11 million or so immigrants are here illegally, or less than 4 percent of the U.S. population, according to the Pew Research Center. But they, too, pay taxes and, contrary to many Americans’ beliefs, are ineligible for most public benefits except those necessary to protect life or guarantee safety, such as emergency Medicaid, access to treatment in hospital emergency rooms, or access to healthcare and nutrition programs under the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program.

For an immigrant to become a U.S. citizen, you must be born here or born to parents who became U.S. citizens, or you must apply for and pass the requirements for U.S. citizenship, a process that can take anywhere from six months to two years. Employees with green cards must wait five years to apply for citizenship. Spouses with green cards must wait three years.

But the biggest challenge for most immigrants is first getting a visa to live and work here before they can apply to be a citizen. Tourist visas are, of course, the most common form of entry, but they last only six months. More often, foreigners who want to seek U.S. citizenship come here through a student visa to attend college.

But that’s not as easy as many Americans think, says Jorge Elias, a Bolivian immigrant and Cincinnati resident who became a citizen 10 years ago. Elias worked several jobs while studying for his electrical engineering degree at the University of Louisville, where he paid two to three times as much for tuition as in-state students. Homesick, Elias asked his mother to send some of her recipes. He failed the English test four times before attaining citizenship.

“Everybody’s friends and families want to come here, and I tell them it is not as easy as you think, and the rules have changed a lot,” Elias says.

Cohen says that, unless a foreign student’s degree exactly matches the high-tech job they are hoping to fill, immigration officials are now denying them H-1B visas that would permit them to work in the U.S. The problem is especially acute in the field of information technology, where training can occur in any number of engineering or computer science programs that don’t carry the name of “information technology.”

Those seeking citizenship through marriage are also undergoing more intensive interviewing to make sure they are not committing fraud.

“Marriage (as a path to citizenship) is exploited a lot,” Prokhorova says. “But it’s often the only reasonable avenue you can pursue. That’s why there are so many fraudulent marriages.”

Despite the increased hurdles, a growing number of foreign-born residents in the United States are applying for green cards and citizenship, in part to protect themselves against the current crackdown, attorneys say.

“They’re more afraid of detentions and deportations,” Memodova says. Once detained by immigration officials, immigrants are now more likely to be deported because of a new 180-day limit on deciding court cases.

“Some people are gone in a couple of days,” she says.

Mayra Jackson, a native of Peru and a paralegal for the Legal Aid Society of Southwestern Ohio, decided to obtain her citizenship last year since, as a green card holder, she wasn’t totally immune from immigration laws.

“As a (legal) resident only, I can have two glasses of wine, go out and drive and get arrested, and I’ll be deported,” she says.

Attorneys also say immigration officials now consider whether an immigrant or a member of their family is receiving public benefits, including medical care, as a reason to deny residency or entry into the country.

“It’s really discriminatory toward people with little resources,” says LeMaster.

U.S. Judge Walter Rice of the Southern District of Ohio has conducted citizenship ceremonies for close to 10,000 immigrants over the last 39 years. Rice says the number of new citizens being sworn in from this region is up by one third from the summer of 2016, despite the new obstacles in their way.

“The dangers and uncertainties of uprooting oneself and trying to gain admission to this country — either through traditional means or asylum — have all increased exponentially,” he says. “The fact that we’re still seeing some people willing to take these risks means that the American ideal that serves as that attraction to people all over the world continues to be so.”

But Rice says the immigration laws need to be changed so potential immigrants “know exactly what the requirements are and, to the extent that it’s possible, to stick to those requirements.”

At the same time, he says, “We also need a way for those persons — 10 million or so — who are not in this country legally to be able to remain. You can’t grant them immunity, but to pick them up and send them out of the country is too drastic a step. So many of these people have family members here who are Americans. I see that we’re splitting up a lot of families these days, which is heartbreaking.”

Catholic Charities, with the backing of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is the largest refugee resettlement agency in the country, working to find homes and a path to citizenship for one in every four refugees coming to America. It is also the primary resettlement agency serving Cleveland, Dayton, and Cincinnati, placing about half of all refugees in Ohio.

The U.S. bishops “have advocated for systematic immigration reform for the last 20 years,” says Ted Bergh, chief executive of Catholic Charities of Southwestern Ohio.

“Individuals have a right to seek safety and economic viability in another country, but nations have a right to control their borders,” he continues. “We need to find a balance for this in our laws. Every person has human dignity and deserves a certain amount of respect and the right to stay alive.”


Support for Ohio Civics Essential is provided by a strategic grant from the Ohio State Bar Foundation to improve civics knowledge of Ohio adults.
The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent those of the Ohio State Bar Foundation.

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