Naturalization complicated for many immigrants

Carolina Lopez helps out a customer at the Carneceria Chihuahua restaurant in Portales. Lopez’ parents came to the United States illegally but are now permanent U.S. residents. (Freedom Newspapers: Tony Parra)

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

Growing up, Maria Valenzuela lived in a crowded adobe house with her family in Michoacan, Mexico. They shared one room and a kitchen in home with a dirt floor.

She left the coastal city — rich in agricultural products but mired in poverty — for the United States at the age of 17, traveling illegally through Tijuana and into California.

“It was tough coming into the United States,” said the 35-year-old Portales woman, who speaks little English. “But there were others who had it worse.”

Her uncle was beaten and his money stolen on his way to the United States, and food was sparse on his journey, she said.

But escaping a life of poverty overshadowed the dangers inherent in illegal immigration for Maria and her brother.

Small, crumbling adobe structures are the homes of many in Mexico, said Maria, whose in-laws subsist on $60 a week and work in fields, growing grapes, tomatoes, potatoes and other crops. Maria’s husband, Sergio, who also came to the United States from Mexico, works at an area dairy, and makes more in one day than is typically made in one week by his family members in Mexico.

Maria gained status as a permanent, legal U.S. resident after she married her husband, who came to this country legally as part of a worker visa program in 1987. That is the most common way immigrants enter the United States legally, through family already here, immigration officials said.

Sergio submitted an application for his green card, which lent him status as a 10-year permanent resident at the end of his first year in the U.S. He continues to renew it yearly.

Sergio and his wife’s grasp of residency was swift compared to many others stranded in the system.

The office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is still addressing petitions for citizenship filed in 1993, according to Maria Elena Garcia-Upson, a spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Albuquerque.

The length of time an immigrant may idle in the system varies wildly, she said, depending upon their home country, whether they have family ties in the United States and, if they do, the nature of the relationship.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, under the wing of Homeland Security, has been mandated by the Bush administration to cut down on the backlog without compromising security, Garcia-Upson said. But the process of immigration still moves at a snail’s pace for some, especially for residents of the Philippines, Mexico and India, the three most common countries of origin of immigrants, Garcia-Upson said.

“Immigration can be very intimidating, but providing you have the right tools, it could be a smooth process. We naturalize thousands of people every day,” Garcia-Upson said.

“Once you see (naturalized citizens) waving the American flag, you understand, for them, this is still the land of opportunity. They have so much more here than they ever would in their home countries,” she said.

U.S. federal law has many categories for immigrants. An alien is defined as any person who is not a U.S. citizen or national. There are six types of aliens: Resident and non-resident, immigrant and non-immigrant, documented and undocumented (or illegal), according to a Cornell University immigration Web site.

The flow of immigrants into the United States is controlled by two types of visas: immigrant and non-immigrant, the latter chiefly issued to tourists, according to the Web site.

The path to citizenship, or naturalization, also has its stipulations.

Immigrants must demonstrate a continuous period of residence and physical presence in the United States, the ability to read, write and speak English, a knowledge of understanding of U.S. history and government, and good moral character, among other things, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Web site.

For Sergio, the desire to obtain U.S. citizenship fizzled.

His efforts to learn English stalled, and his application for citizenship was never filed. The demands of family and work drowned out others.

“I studied and took classes, but I quit going after a while,” Sergio said. “It was hard working six days out of the week and taking care of my family. There wasn’t enough time.”

Difficulty navigating the waters of U.S. immigration law, and an accompanying, gradual erosion of the desire to assimilate into American culture is common, according to Miranda Gerberding, a graduate student who studies ESL— English as a Second Language — at Eastern New Mexico University and teaches ESL courses at Clovis Community College.

Correspondence from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration offices is oftentimes misunderstood, or not understood at all, and for new immigrants, contact with Americans is limited, Gerberding said. The exam required for citizenship contains questions she said she would not be able to answer.

“It is a very scary process. Most immigrants to the U.S. just want to do everything right,” Gerberding said.

There seems to be no uniform immigration experience, however, Gerberding said. Some of her students obtain citizenship in a matter of months, others wait years, and a few have hired lawyers to pull them through stagnant immigration applications, she said.

Yet a surge in the nation’s 8 million legal immigrants is occurring in the numbers attending classes and seminars to learn how to become U.S. citizens since Congress refreshed the debate over immigration laws, which have a long history of debate in the United States, changing several times, according to the Associated Press.

The Clovis Community College English as a Second Language program has steadily grown from 127 students in 2001 to 184 in 2005, according to Mona Lee Norman-Armstrong, director of CCC Mabel Lee Hawkins Center for Student Success, which oversees the ESL program.

“Our English as a Second Language students are the most dedicated learners in our (adult education) program. They spend longer hours at the center independently studying. They are much more consistent in attending classes regularly.

“It is an absolute survival skill they are trying to acquire,” Norman-Armstrong said.

For Gerberding, who has forged relationships with many of her ESL students, some peek in her classroom to wave as they pass by after class has ended, an essential piece of the immigration debate in America is missing: Compassion.

“Many people in the U.S. simply do not understand the situations going on in other countries. (Immigrants) are fleeing oppression, poverty. They are trying to make better lives.

“Most want to do everything legally, but it is just difficult to get the process started,” she said.

Freedom Newspapers staff writer Tony Parra contributed to this report.