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Illinois immigrants take the oath of citizenship in front of their families and friends.

Residency only a pit stop for many immigrants on the road to citizenship

by Lauren M. Davis
May 21, 2013


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Grace Costigan shows her certificate of citizenship with husband Dan  outside of the Dirksen Federal Building, after her long-awaited naturalization ceremony.

Immigration graph

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 The number of 2012 legalizations in the U.S. shot up 22 percent since 2010. If the new immigration reform bill is signed into law, experts say, a new road to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants could raise these numbers in time.


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"Really this is my home, though I wasn’t a citizen, I saw this as my home," says Emerson Rodriguez. He embraces his sister after his naturalization ceremony last week.

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"Nearly 30 years ago, I was a young man sitting where you are now," said U.S. District Judge John Lee to a crowd of candidates for citizenship last week. He moved with his family to the Albany Park neighborhood in Chicago when he was a teen. He says, because of his experience, he especially enjoys conducting naturalization ceremonies.

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Maria Ludlow, a 35-year-old wife and mother, says she is excited to become a citizen because she loves the United States. She will be eligible to apply in July.

Related Links

Naturalization Annual Flow Report for 2012The proposed immigration reform billNaturalization documentation check list U.S. Citizenship and Immigration ServicesSample naturalization test questionsNaturalization Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America

For illegal immigrants, more than one path to citizenship under proposed bill

The immigration reform bill that passed the Senate Committee earlier this week has received much attention over the proposed 13-year path to citizenship.

That’s just one of the proposed paths for illegal immigrants, said Linus Chan, law professor at DePaul.

“It depends on how you start counting,” Chan said. “If you start counting right from the day the bill passes, there are basically three different paths. The fastest track is five years.”

This path would be specifically for DREAMers, illegal immigrants born outside the United States who were brought to the U.S. as children.

“The bill that passed the Senate Judiciary Committee adopts a DREAM act essentially,” he said.

Unlike the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), and last introduced in the Senate in 2011, there is no longer an age cap at 31.

According to the bill these immigrants must have entered the United States before age 16, must have been enrolled in college for two years, graduated from college or served in the military for at least four years, along with other provisions, to be eligible for residency.

“For DREAMers, it’s only five years until they get a green card, but as soon as they get a green card, they’re eligible for citizenship,” Chan said.

The next path will take 10 years, he said. Under the proposed law, agricultural workers, in the country illegally could apply for a status card, now known as a blue card, if immigrants have worked in the U.S. agriculture industry for at least 100 days in the two years prior to December 31, 2012.

“For the blue card holders, as soon as they get a green card, it’s five years,” Chan said.

The last, longest and highly publicized path is the 13-year track for all other illegal immigrants.

“It’s 10 years from the passage of the law before they can get a green card.” Chan said. Immigrants would have to wait three more years until they can get citizenship.

This last path, which some activists say is too long and risky, is dependent on whether certain border security measures are met, he said.

“It requires 90 percent of all illegal entry be stopped, that’s one of the big benchmarks it requires,” he said.

Chan has been following the bill and although it passed the Senate Committee, he said, he's not sure how it will all play out.

“It’s so many things that can happen,” he said.

Chan said the bill has to pass the Senate floor after likely amendments, and the House has to then introduce its bill and pass it before the president can sign off.

“It’s up in the air,” he said.

"All rise,” said the bailiff to a hushed courtroom.

Grace Costigan, just seven days shy of her 40th birthday, stood up with 139 candidates from 44 countries as Judge John Lee entered Courtroom 2525 at the Dirksen Federal Building. In just a few moments Costigan would renounce her birth country and take the Naturalization Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America.

"I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen ...,” Costigan repeated, holding a miniature American flag.

“She wanted to do it by 40,” her husband, Dan, said with a smile after the ceremony.

Costigan is among an increasing number of immigrants who aren’t satisfied with just a green card. According to the U.S. Naturalizations: 2012 report, released by the Department of Homeland Security in March, 757,434 immigrants were naturalized last year, the highest number since 2008, which peaked right before an increase in the cost of registration. This number grew 9 percent from 694,193 in 2011 and 22 percent from 619,913 in 2010.

Costigan’s journey had some holdups, she said. She left her home country, Poland, for the U.S. on a temporary worker’s visa in 2001, applied for permanent residency, but because of a lack of documents her application was denied.

“The second time I just had a lawyer, a really good one, and I just had all the papers,” Costigan said, adding that a letter from then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel helped her case.

In 2006, she became a permanent resident and in 2011, after the lawful five-year period, she was eligible for citizenship. She waited an additional two years to save money for the application fees, and last week, after a 12-year wait, she finally became a citizen.

In Washington, the proposed immigration reform bill that passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday includes a 13-year pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, that could, in time, give millions more immigrants a chance to naturalize, said Linus Chan, professor at the DePaul, Asylum and Immigration Law Clinic.

“We are talking about 10 [million] to 11 million people that it’s going to potentially affect,” Chan said.

Implementation of the bill will allow immigrants who entered the country illegally before Dec. 31, 2011 provisional legal status as soon as six months after the bill is signed. They would then have to wait 10 years for a green card and three more years to complete their citizenship.

The process will stay the same for immigrants with green cards, Chan said.

To him, the most interesting aspect of all immigration is the overwhelming desire of immigrants to not just be a resident, able to work and travel, but to complete the process of being naturalized.

“Why is that last step, the one that’s being fought over so much right now in the new law. … Why is that so necessary?” he said.

“The reason legislatures are fighting for it is because people have told them that’s what they require, so why is it? I think it’s hard for a lot of people to grasp that idea,” he said. “Everyone can understand no one wants to be deported. Everyone can understand, everyone wants to be able to work, but what is so important about being called a citizen?”

Emerson Rodriguez, 31, who was also naturalized last week after spending 18 years in the U.S., said he finally has the rights of every other citizen. Basic rights, such as voting and federal employment, inaccessible throughout his adult life, are now open to him.

Not only that, but to Rodriguez, naturalization adds a sense of security.

“It’s a milestone. It’s just an opportunity to just be legal in this country and not have to worry about going back to where I came from, which although I love my country, it’s a scary place,” he said.

Originally from El Salvador, Rodriguez said he waited so many years to naturalize because of the application fees.

“It was pretty pricey, I kind of just put it on the back burner, 800 bucks,” he said.

Chan, who has almost 10 years of experience in immigration law, said money, is a common roadblock.

“Citizenship is expensive. It’s not a cheap process. It can cost someone close to $1,000, at least $700 to apply to become a citizen,” he said.

Chan added that people born in the U.S. may not always appreciate this right.
“We get it for free. We get it with our birth,” he said.

After immigrants pay their application fees, Chan said, they are examined for good moral character.

“So if you have unpaid parking tickets or you’re a deadbeat dad or you have a drinking problem or you’ve committed adultery in the past, those are all things that can come into whether or not you will be a citizen,” Chan said. “I think it’s a really weird thing to have to prove to a government that you’re a good person.”

Chan said morality is another quality natural citizens don’t have to demonstrate.

Steve Piraka, attorney at Immigration Law Associates, P.C. in Skokie, and former naturalization officer said the cost and ethics are not the only hurdles immigrants face.

“The main problem is learning English and being able to pass the history exam in English,” Piraka said. “And after they pass the history test they have to pass the writing test, the reading test and be able to discuss the application with the officer.”

For many immigrants this is a problem because they may have moved to a community where they can continue to speak their native language, he said.

Eric Berggren, who teaches naturalization courses at the Albany Park Community Center three times a week, sees this issue regularly.

Berggren suggests that immigrants wait until they learn the language and prepare before they take the test. “The main problem I’m finding is that people are applying too soon,” he said.

Even with all the hurdles, 35-year-old Maria Ludlow, who attends Berggren's class, said she will continue the process toward becoming a citizen.

The cashier and mother of an 8-year-old, Ludlow said she has started studying for the tests but is still waiting to apply.

Ludlow immigrated to the United States illegally from Mexico City when she was 19 years old and started working in a factory, she said. She said she was denied a U.S. visa but still wanted to help support her family.

Through her marriage to a U.S. citizen, she was able to get a green card and in, July, three years after she became a resident, she plans to apply.

Ludlow said she is most excited about not having to wait to vote in another election. In 2016, she plans to be at the polls. "I need to vote for the next president," she said.

For immigrants, like Costigan, who spent years meeting citizenship requirements, just the feeling of completing the process is worth the wait.

She smiled and laughed with her husband after her naturalization ceremony, finally holding her certificate of citizenship in her hand.

“I feel happy, free somehow," she said. "You know, proud.”