Sunday, November 18, 2007

an American dream deferred

Some long-time permanent residents are antsy because, although they’ve done all that was required of them to naturalize—waited the requisite number of years, filed the forms, paid their taxes and child support, paid the application fees, been fingerprinted, passed the English and civics exams, and passed an in-person screening interview with an immigration officer—they are still waiting months or years for the government to approve them for citizenship. From CNN:

Manny Barajas was eagerly awaiting his first taste of American democracy. Instead, he is learning a frustrating lesson in government bureaucracy.

. . .

"I was hoping that I could be ready to go in '08," Barajas said.

Barajas came to the United States from Mexico nearly 40 years ago and has raised a family in Las Vegas, Nevada, where he works as a waiter. For years, he said, family and friends have urged him to apply for citizenship; the decision to hold a Democratic presidential caucus next January was the clincher.

"The American dream brings me to Las Vegas," Barajas told us when we first met nine months ago. "And the last thing for me to do is become a citizen and make my vote count."

. . .

He filed his paperwork more than six months ago but hasn't heard a word from the government. His union says it knows of at least 1,000 in similar limbo.

. . .

Barajas is at the beginning of the process. Felipe Lopez at the end [so he thinks -Ed.]-- but also in limbo.

"I am waiting almost two years -- it is a long time," said Lopez, who came to the United States from Mexico 14 years ago and drives a truck for a seafood distributor.

Lopez showed us the paper trail of his frustration. He first applied in January 2006. He passed the citizenship test 16 months ago. The last step is a background check -- and three times Lopez says he has been called in for the required fingerprinting. The last time was four months ago. Still no word on if and when he will be approved to take the oath of citizenship.

. . .

The Department of Homeland Security says the process should take seven months -- start to finish. But it acknowledges a growing backlog; there are nearly 900,000 pending applications now -- almost twice as many as a year ago.

The government says it is a simple case of increased demand and limited resources.

This is partly true. But the increased demand is largely of the government’s own making: first, in response to increased federal enforcement and failure to resolve issues on the national level, leading to punitive local and state enforcement initiatives, many long-time permanent residents have applied for citizenship out of fear of what might happen to them if they don’t. Second, the government, after ignoring contradictory input from community-based organizations and religious groups predicting increased hardship on those least able to bear it, increased its naturalization fees by about 70 percent. Many immigrants took the opportunity to apply before the fee increase. This is something the government should have seen coming and prepared for. Instead, the applicants must bear the consequences for the stresses put on the system for which the system was not prepared.

"I think it is a little discrimination, because they focus on the bad part of immigration." Barajas said. "What about all these people who have been in the country legally and paying their taxes?"

Unions are a major force behind the citizenship drive and some labor leaders here wonder aloud if a Republican administration is perhaps dragging its feet processing the applications of people it believes are likely to become Democratic voters.

The administration says that is not the case, that the backlog is simply a question of resources.

I suppose that is possible. There are many things the government really wishes it could do, but there’s just not enough federal money to go around, or logistical bumps in the road take time to smooth over.

It happens all the time:

According to UN estimates, more than 4 million Iraqis have been displaced since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Refugee advocates call it the fastest-growing humanitarian crisis on the planet, deteriorating more quickly than Myanmar (also known as Burma) or Darfur.

More than 2 million people have fled the country, with most finding temporary asylum in the Middle East while they apply for permanent status in nations such as the U.S.

But while people are flooding out of Iraq, arrivals in the U.S. are more a trickle.

In February, the Bush administration pledged to resettle 7,000 Iraqi refugees to the U.S. in fiscal 2007. But by its close on Sept. 30, fewer than a quarter -- only 1,608 -- had arrived.

Government officials blame setbacks in creating and staffing on-site offices needed to conduct background checks, essential procedures they say have just recently been put into place, allowing them to process more refugees.

"There was nothing set up ... and we didn't have clearance from governments to bring in the organizations that are needed, to establish office and computer systems, and all the things that go with it," said Gina Wells, spokesperson for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration at the State Department. "It's kind of like the start-up of a business. It doesn't happen in an hour."

But refugee advocates suggest the administration has simply been dragging its feet, perhaps in an effort to downplay the scope of the crisis and the U.S.'s role in creating it.

. . .

Others argue that the U.S. has a moral obligation to those seeking asylum.

"Many are former translators and interpreters who have already been through a [security] clearance and have demonstrated loyalty to the U.S.," Kocher said. "Historically, there is precedent: we took a million Vietnamese since 1975. We took over 600,000 Russian Jews from the Soviet Union, over 150,000 Bosnian refugees since 1993, and 15,000 Kosovo refugees in the spring of 1999 over just a few months. We have a noble history as a country of responding with generosity during refugee crises. But we haven't done it here yet."

In recent months, the government appeared to pick up the pace of admissions. More than 1,400 Iraqi refugees arrived in August and September. And for fiscal year 2008, the government pledged to accept up to 12,000.

Iraqis should know by now what the pledges of the U.S. government are worth. But this isn’t the first interaction we’ve had with Iraq—there was a small affair in 1990-91 that created a lot of Iraqi refugees. But back then, the red tape was a lot less impenetrable:

The numbers appear especially small when compared to average arrivals during the presidencies of Bill Clinton -- about 90,000 a year -- and George H.W. Bush -- about 120,000 a year.

What happened since then? Well, 9/11, combined with the inability of the government to tell brown people apart from one another and a national propensity for bed-wetting.

"What we have to remind folks of is that there's a war going on," Homeland Security spokesperson Laura Keehner said. "We have to make sure we do not inadvertently welcome a refugee who wishes to do us harm or has ties to terrorism."

What we have to remind folks is that we started a war that has ripped apart a country, and that perhaps not all of its citizens will have warm, happy feelings towards us, no matter what Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Wolfowitz told us beforehand.

If the government were so confident our actions in Iraq are in the best interests of Iraqis, why would they be nervous to let in Iraqi refugees? Wouldn’t those refugees be eternally grateful to the government that liberated them? What could we have to fear from such people?

Perhaps we’re not really in Iraq to help Iraqis achieve better lives. Perhaps someone should notify the American people.

And when Bush-appointed bureaucrats tell constituents that they are doing their best, but the resources are too little and the obstacles too great, perhaps we should think twice before accepting that explanation at face value.


Rob said...

My friend worked for the govt translating Armenian communications within the Us. for this he had to have a complete background check, which according to him costs the govt about $100K. Then it was 2 years before they ever put him to "work", which consisted mostly of sitting on his butt all day waiting for any work in a high security office building with no windows or internet. Most of his coworkers brought books/magazines to read, he learned Mandarine.

yave said...

Somehow these national security-related welfare payments don't bother people nearly as much as the kind that help people stay out of poverty. All Bush has to do is yelp "Terr'r!" and Congress coughs up another $200 billion for the Global War on Things That Make Us Hide Under the Covers at Night.