A Strict Process: Citizenship

The legal path to citizenship is long and narrow.



Illustration by Stephen Sauer

Jessica Paeplow, a Spanish teacher at Alvirne High School in Hudson, is a native of Lima, Peru, where she studied English and became a teacher. At 26, a strong "sense of adventure" brought her here. It wasn't easy; she had to leave her young daughter with her parents. Like many immigrants before her, she knew that America was the place to test her ambitions and improve her life.

"There is something in every immigrant," Paeplow says, "a desire to be better; a drive, a motivation."

In 2001 she landed a job as a waitress at the Omni Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods and along with it a J-1 student visa (and later converted it to an A-3 work visa). She came to perfect her English, but ended up marrying an American and getting on the path toward citizenship.

It is a process that has grown more cumbersome and cold-hearted since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Most immigration lawyers say the process has become too strict, bogged down and subjective. They hope that the political winds will bring change.

John Wilson, a 30-year veteran immigration lawyer with offices in Concord and Paris, says the US policy has harmed our nation's reputation as a beacon of hope for immigrants. "We've lost our moral fiber," he says, "We are not squeaky clean."

There are 20 different types of immigration visas divided between two classifications - Non-immigrant and Immigrant. The former is temporary and usually for a visitor; the latter is permanent and must have a sponsor- typically a US citizen or employing company. They all have a defined time - a certain numerical limit. Visas can be renewed, but eventually (after a minimum of five years) many resident aliens apply for a green card, which provides permanent legal status. It can lead to a full citizenship through the naturalization process, which includes tests proving basic proficiency in reading and understanding English and a five-question verbal quiz on American civics.

This process can take many years and it is riddled with mine fields that could stop or slow the process or trigger deportation. It is designed to ensure entry only to people of "good moral character." Obviously criminals are out, but it's sometimes hard to define.

"It's been real strict for a long time," says Randall Drew, a Bedford attorney who has practiced immigration law since graduating law school over a decade ago, "more strict every year."

Drew advises people to consult with an attorney. Language and culture can be a difficult barrier, he says, and warns against relying on what is called a "notario," a rogue notary who promises to handle the paperwork for a fee cheaper than an attorney. Incorrectly filed forms are a waste of time and money and also bog down the system. In some instances there are mandatory waiting periods between filings. "It's very complex and not logical," Drew says, "like the tax code."

"You have to get everything right at the right time," says Ron Abramson, a Manchester-based immigration lawyer, who himself became a naturalized citizen when he was 12 years old.


All the while this process is unfolding, immigrants need to stay out of trouble and worry about long-forgotten infractions with the law. Deportations are on the rise, many for traffic and drunken driving offenses. George Bruno, a Manchester immigration attorney and former US Ambassador to Belize, says it's easy to get caught in this web and there is no appeal process or requirement to provide a reason for a denial. "The system is so opaque," he adds.

The "USCI (US Citizenship and Immigration Service) does not recognize state court expungements or annulments," he says. Nor does it turn a blind eye toward citations: "If you were ever stopped for a traffic violation," Bruno says, "that's a citation."

For around $5,000 (with about $1,500 going to application fees) an attorney will handle a green card application. A petition for a visa is less - and is often handled by an employer. The key is screening applicants, Abramson says: "I meet with a lot of very nice people that I have to turn away. I can't help them."

New Hampshire's immigrant population is, by and large, the cream of the crop - better educated, highly paid professionals in specialty occupations coming here to fill an expertise, not compete with existing workers. They are doctors, nurses, radiologists and high-tech professionals, Attorney Wilson, who primarily assists businesses to get their prize finds into the country says, "Overwhelmingly, they love America and want to be citizens."

He could have been speaking about Jessica Paeplow. In addition to her teaching job, she works part-time and is taking a course for a master's degree. Eventually, her daughter joined her (and also became a citizen) and is now in her first year of college. The immigration process was long, Paeplow admits, and sometimes frustrating, but her timing was lucky, before 9/11. She did it without the aid of a lawyer, but had a strong command of the English language. "I wanted to play by the rules," she says, "it was worth it."

On Election Day, when she registered to vote at Nashua's Broad Street Elementary School, the clerk asked her if she was a Democrat or a Republican. Unsure, she settled on being an Independent. It hardly mattered, she was just happy to be an American and to be able to vote. NH

 

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