Okay, time for a little ranting. Both of these relate back to arguments that my team and I made in debate my senior year of high school (Resolved: government should give illegal immigrants health care).
First and most importantly, one of the bedrocks of our argument rested on the idea that citizenship was a quick, fair, and easy way to enjoy the benefits of being an American. Having now gone through the entire naturalization process, I can safely say the benefits of citizenship are true, but the adjectives in the previous statements are as far from the truth as possible. This brings me to an issue that I suddenly care a lot about: legal immigration reform.
(I won’t get into issues about visas. I think Sarah Lacy of TechCrunch wrote an excellent argument explaining the problem with the H-1B visa. Instead, I’ll focus on the long, confusing, and costly process that awaits legal immigrants once they have decided to stay in this country for good. I draw largely on my own experiences, but I’m sure others have experienced similar headaches.)
First, becoming a citizen is a costly matter. Filing to become a permanent resident (a necessary step to becoming a full citizen) currently costs $930 plus $80 for biometrics. Filing to naturalization costs $595 plus $80 for biometrics. That’s $1,685 per person. Thankfully my family is in a stable financial situation, but it’s not hard to imagine a lower income family with several members up for naturalization struggling to come up with that much cash at once. This also does not include travel expenses (only a few major cities have processing facilities) and lost wage opportunities (most business is naturally conducted during business hours). I understand employing the people and equipment to support the process requires money, but immigrant families should not have to face a financial hardship to become a citizen.
This gets into the next flaw of the naturalization process: it is extremely inflexible. Once you send in your application, you’re tied to a processing center based on your home address. This was a big problem for me because as a college student I spend most of my time away from home. Therefore, even though I live in Pennsylvania, it is much easier for me to go to appointments in Boston. The USCIS (the organization which handles the naturalization process) apparently has trouble understanding this because I communicated this to them on multiple occasions but they continuously scheduled my appointments in Philadelphia. Each time I had to reschedule and delay the process. As a result, I was unable to complete the process before France and barely made it for London. I can’t be the only one with this problem. College students frequently go to school in a different state and professionals often travel for work to different parts of the country. Tying applications to a geography is an archaic system that harkens back to an era when everything was done by paper and few people traveled. The advent of computer records should make transferring an application from one city to another as easy as the stroke of a button.
This shouldn’t be unexpected though given the USCIS’s inept use of technology. It does not allow for electronic filing and the only way to contact customer service is through a 1800 hotline. They could easily add a live chat function to answer quick questions online and utilize email to communicate important updates and deadlines. Instead, USCIS forces all communications through the mail as if we’re still using the Pony Express (maybe they’re colluding to keep the Post Office afloat). The online “Check Case Status” feature is likewise useless. It merely tells you that your application is “pending.” No crap.
The immigration test itself is a joke. The so-called interview is nothing more than an immigration officer reading your application back to you and asking you if it’s correct. The “English test” involves reading and writing a first grade sentence (mine was something along the lines of “I live in the US.”) No offense to the nice lady that administered my test, but there is something seriously wrong when I have a far greater mastery of the English language than the person administering my “English test.” That does not compare with the civics test though. You get randomly asked several questions that theoretically every American should know. These are things like “Name our current president” or “Name one of this state’s senators” or “What are the three branches of government?” At the risk of sounding arrogant again, I got a freaking 5 on the AP US History test and took AP Government in high school. I know this stuff cold. Yet sadly, many native born Americans would probably fail this test.
Last but not least, I want to talk about the swearing in process. As previously mentioned in this cyberspace, I liked my ceremony for the most part. However, I would’ve liked to have gotten the whole thing over with earlier this year so I could go to France without a visa and get my UK visa earlier. The problem was the earliest ceremony they could schedule me in was in June (while I was in France) and so I was (again) delayed until August (could’ve been sworn in with Jason Bay in July). Starting to see a trend here?
I did a lot of complaining just now, but tomorrow I will be posting Part 2 with some ideas for improvement as well as the second debate argument that needs revision. Stay tuned.