Friday, August 15, 2008

A Dysfunctional Backtracking Immigration system: Citizenship denied

I'm amazed at the lack of willingness on the part of immigration officers to help people," says Julio Trejo," I didn't think that one question answered incorrectly could deny my citizenship."
"I'm a college graduate so I think I have enough smarts to understand the bureaucracy but I was naive enough to believe that the government is on your side. I thought the process from permanent resident to U.S. citizen would be seamless: I studied the book and the steps are simple; it says that if you have been a lawful resident for five years or more and have never been convicted of any crime, if you meet the basic requirements, you qualify. No problem. I filled out the necessary forms, got fingerprinted and interviewed -- it was San Antonio, Texas, 2004.

After the interview, the immigration officer said everything was fine. He handed me a form that said 'Congratulations, you have everything required to be a U.S. citizen and you will be called to attend the swearing-in ceremony shortly' --or words to that effect. Not long after the interview I was promoted and transferred to a job in Atlanta - I am a dietician at a senior's retirement residence. I notified Homeland Security right away of my change of address, as required by law.

I assumed that I would go to the citizenship ceremony in Atlanta. After two months I got another letter for yet another interview and it said I could have an attorney present. I had no idea what it was about and of course didn't need an attorney to come with me - why would I need one? I hadn't done anything wrong. So I went to the interview and asked the immigration officer why I was having this second interview and not saying the Oath of Allegiance instead. 'Sometimes we let another officer go through the application, it usually has to be checked by two officers,' she explained. Apparently everything was in order, but then she said, 'What happened in 1998?'

Nothing happened. My mind was racing - I automatically thought there was some criminal charge, something I had done wrong. I had done absolutely nothing wrong so when she asked if I was willing to put that in writing, I said sure. I didn't think anything of it but later found out that, because I signed that affidavit, my citizenship was denied.

This is why I was denied my citizenship. When I went through the legal resident process, I signed a form that disclosed how I entered the U.S. I arrived here on my student visa from Mexico in 1990-91. I overstayed my visa for about one year but got my residency status in 1992 through the amnesty program. But I forgot all about it, and she thought I was lying.

In other words, I was denied citizenship because of a form I signed 17 years ago that I don't remember signing. At that time I barely spoke English. The process was through the Catholic Social Services and I didn't understand the questions. Now, this immigration officer didn't elaborate on the question- she only asked me 'what happened'. She could have been more helpful, she could have asked me if I wanted a lawyer before signing. She could have given me a clue. But instead, she set me up to be denied..

After I was denied, I did some research and found out that the officer could have handled this situation a lot differently. I had the right to correct any derogatory information.

The next step I have to do is fill out a form N336 - a denied citizenship appeal. This means that you are allowed to have another interview with another officer - not the one who denied your application. And that officer will look at the facts and can overturn the decision, ask for more information or grant your appeal. According to the law (which I have been reading a lot!) you pay $268 for an appeal and then Homeland Security cannot exceed 180 days from the date when the appeal is sent until the time you are assigned the interview.

That was in 2005. I have now waited 365 days to answer one question. I have had to go through this process for two years, all because I didn't understand, or the immigration officer didn't elaborate on, one question.

I understand why people are denied citizenship, mainly for a felony or drugs. But my record is clean. I continue to be a legal resident and I am still waiting for my appeal. Ironically, this question isn't about citizenship. If they had asked this question when I applied for legal residency, I would have been denied that. So now I feel that they are backtracking.

Now I have a lawyer. I filed the appeal myself but I am not going to walk into the next interview by myself, no matter how much I have studied the law. I can imagine this happens to thousands of people. After five years, you should be eligible to become a citizen. I have now been a permanent resident of this country for 15 years. I have paid taxes, I have always abided by the law.

If the appeal process doesn't work, I can re-apply again. But this creates a lot of hardship. My daughter lives in Mexico and I can't legally bring her into the U.S until I get my citizenship. I want to have a life in America. I have been offered a transfer and promotion to Texas but will it take another two years to file if I move? Basically, my life is on hold, for one question on a form I signed 17 years ago when I was just 16 years old.

I can understand and agree that many people should be denied citizenship for a host of reasons, but just because this one officer in Atlanta was not in a good mood that day shouldn't mean that it was going to be a bad day for me

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