The Top 4 Barriers to Citizenship Most Often Faced by Immigrants

Alex (a pseudonym) was in kindergarten when she came to America from Canada through a sponsorship from her mother, who was granted a U.S. working visa for a nursing job. In the 21 years that followed, Alex was constantly reminded of her status as an “other.” Each summer, she and her mother would return home to Canada and renew her visa. At the end of the summer before Alex entered ninth grade, her mother was informed she had to prove she was an English-speaking Canadian and was told she needed a visa screening, despite her speaking fluent English to the airport personnel. She was told she had two weeks to return to the United States to handle what she could to keep from losing her belongings during the process. But she wasn’t allowed to take her children. After those two weeks, she returned to Canada and waited through the visa screen and renewal of her visa—a process that lasted from August to November.


When Alex’s mother’s working visa, and by extension her own visa, were renewed that November, they returned to the United States and she continued the ninth grade.

For the next three years, Alex worked diligently to complete school with top marks and find a path to college. Right before her high school graduation, she and her boyfriend, a U.S. citizen, found out she was pregnant. It didn’t derail her motivation, but as she approached legal adulthood, her legal status would soon change. She needed to find a more permanent solution to keep her family intact. After she and her boyfriend married, she began the lengthy process to getting American citizenship.

The Difficulties of Immigrating to America

Alex is one of many immigrants working their way through the obstacles with the goal of making a life in America. The Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policies aren’t making things any easier. As we wait for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) solution that was promised, anti-immigration misinformation has been abundant. Many immigration advocates were disgusted when White House Chief of Staff John Kelly said in early February that those who haven’t signed up for DACA are “too lazy to get off their asses."

That sort of shameful rhetoric serves as a reminder that the privilege of citizenship blinds many to the struggles faced by immigrants. As Donald Trump’s administration and right-wing media have emphasized the long-term effects of “chain migration,” it’s more important than ever that the public understands that citizenship isn’t nearly as simple as conservatives make it out to be. The truth is that immigration to the U.S. is a tedious, invasive and expensive process. There are tons of obstacles that make it difficult and sometimes even impossible for immigrants to become legal residents.

Recently, researchers at Stanford University’s Immigration Policy Lab, in collaboration with researchers at George Mason University and the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy at SUNY Albany, conducted a study that aimed to answer the question: How can barriers to naturalization be lifted?

Their findings provided a glimpse into the daily challenges that many Americans citizens haven’t considered. But a better understanding comes from hearing stories like Alex’s and addressing the four barriers to citizenship most often faced by immigrants.

1. Eligibility

Legally migrating to the United States is a multi-step process that begins with getting a visa. A visa isn’t something just anyone can get, though there are occasional exceptions. Spouses, children, siblings, or parents of United States citizens can file I-130 paperwork (Petition for Alien Relative with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services). Lawful permanent residents, or green-card holders, can only sponsor spouses and children for visas. Specialized careers like nursing, which brought Alex’s mother here, can be sponsored by their future employer.

According to Alex, one of the most stressful parts of attaining a green card is how dependent you become on those around you. “Everything I needed to do [with paperwork] was an extension of someone else,” she recalled. Since she married and became a mother as a teenager, she was trapped between two worlds: Privately, she had responsibilities as a mother and a student that she could fulfill independently, but when any of her immigration documents were due, she needed the aid of her husband, and later his parents, in the filing process.

Similarly, as a young wife and mother, who at the time was only sponsored on her mother’s visa, she couldn’t get a job. Her husband was a U.S.-born citizen who worked, but at that time, he made minimum wage. When Alex was finally given a working visa, it came with stipulations. “There is a clause on my visa saying I must be able to financially support myself,” says Alex. That financial support included paying for college out of pocket because most visa-holders don’t qualify for federal assistance. Following the rules of eligibility for her working visa left Alex wondering how she could afford college.

It’s also important to note that there are only a certain number of visas allowed per country every year. So if you're the 300th person to apply and the United States has only 299 visas available for your country, you’re out of luck.

2. Cost

The path to citizenship can be extremely expensive. That alone makes it unattainable for many. According to the Immigration Policy Lab study’s findings, “the cost of naturalization has soared by more than 500 percent over the past three decades.”

This creates an obvious challenge for poor immigrants who are looking to become legal citizens. Since many immigrants end up doing low-skilled manual work, paying a $725-per-person application fee can wipe out one or even two weeks of wages.

Federally, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services recently lowered the fee for applicants between 150 and 200 percent of the poverty level. However, that does nothing to relieve the financial struggles related to citizenship for those who are at the poverty level or slightly above.

Also, naturalization isn’t a stand-alone fee. It exists in addition to the money spent on visa renewals, green cards and traveling to and from appointments—which could require time off work. The amount required to file visa paperwork varies greatly depending on the type of visa you are applying for as well as how and when you entered the United States. Additionally, the amount you spend on the process changes based on the distance you live from the consulars (in terms of time off work) and how many times you have to file or refile for your visa. The process varies so much depending on one’s individual situation and country of origin that it is impossible to get a single figure, but it’s generally far from free and easy.

3. Comprehension

Comprehension is one of the most impactful barriers to citizenship. The paperwork, research and understanding needed to submit a complete packet can be both mentally and emotionally taxing.

“I can vividly remember sitting in front of the computer and telling myself to take a deep breath as I prepared to read the forms,” says Alex (who was an honors student). The learning curve for the immigration paperwork process is so complex that most people who are able to, simply hire an immigration lawyer. But that gets costly. There was a $4,000 lawyer fee for Alex’s application alone, plus the total it would cost to file the paperwork. Having a professional file the paperwork isn’t a requirement, but it definitely helps.

In an attempt to save money, Alex tried to file on her own the first time, but the comprehension levels necessary were so high that she ended up missing something and had her application denied. There is no refund for denied packets, so you repay the fee each time you apply.

4. Timelines

Last but not least are the timelines involved in the citizenship process. To even be eligible for citizenship, assuming you have no special circumstances, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services says you must have “3-5 years as a Permanent Resident without leaving the United States for trips of 6 months or longer.”

From the moment you make the life-changing decision to immigrate to the U.S., you are constantly at the whim of a deadline. You must wait for a decision on your visa before you can come to the U.S. If you are approved, once you are on American soil, you have to keep up to date on all the normal responsibilities (work, family and friends) in addition to legal deadlines. If there’s something you don’t understand, you can contact the immigration office, but the wait times, both in-person and via phone, are so lengthy that they can put life on hold.

Legal residency, for as much time as it takes, also comes with a certain amount of stigma.

“There was a note on my license that I was a legal resident until a certain date,” says Alex. Knowing that date was listed on her license felt like a reminder that she didn’t belong. But the stigma of immigrating to the United States was most visible when her history and government curriculums discussed citizenship in middle school through high school.

“The teachers would ask the students who weren’t born here to raise their hands. Of course, I was one of the only black children to do so. At first, no one believed I was from Canada, but afterwards, I was teased and called an ‘illegal’ and ‘alien,’” she explained. Although they meant no harm, the teachers forgot the lesson’s relevant words “illegal alien” could easily be weaponized (the right wing does it all the time). Since Trump's election, bullying based on citizenship status has become even more common; so much that some schools have had to offer counseling to help students cope.

Alex described how applying for jobs, college and even considering if she wanted to buy a house were always more extensive because her legal status had to be reviewed. But the fear of looming deadlines can also affect the mental health of immigrants.

“We aren’t advised to carry our green cards with us, but without it I began feeling unsafe,” she said. Applications for green cards are processed on a first come, first served basis, and waiting lines to have your application confirmed or denied average one to two years (many factors can influence that timeline, including if you entered the U.S. legally or illegally). That level of uncertainty affects many applicants’ major life decisions.

There are tens if not hundreds of obstacles that can limit law-abiding immigrants from achieving citizenship within a reasonable amount of time. The process is financially, mentally and emotionally taxing. U.S. citizens—especially those in power—should use their privileges to help alleviate these barriers. None of us can control where we were born or if our parents decided to migrate somewhere else, but we can all ensure that we treat others as humans deserving of grace.

For more information on the barriers faced by low-income immigrants, check out the Immigration Policy Lab’s infographic.

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