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Reflections on Citizenship Pathways

June 1, 2013. A constant point of contention in the immigration reform debate has been whether or not legislators should include a pathway to citizenship. In the Senate Gang of 8's bill there are three proposed pathways for those in the U.S. without status, including for DREAMers, certain agricultural workers, and others. As of the writing of this article, the Senate bill has undergone the rigors of Senate Judiciary Committee hearings and mark-up, and it is en route to hit the floor where it will be subjected to more debate. It is expected that reform opponents will attack the citizenship provisions. Similarly, the House is planning to release its own immigration reform bill(s), spearheaded by another group of eight legislators. As in the Senate, the House expects to wrestle with the issue of citizenship pathways. Some reform opponents will seek to kill the bill if it provides a path, while some reform proponents will certainly refuse to support the bill if it fails to provide a path.

As the immigration reform debate has progressed, I have taken time to reflect on my own clients' varied paths to citizenship. Some were simple and straightforward, and for others, let's just say they had to take the long and scenic route.

Now in my seventh year practicing immigration law, I find myself at a very interesting point in my career. I have noticed in the past few months that many of my clients applying for naturalization were among my first cases as a new attorney. It is wonderful when clients who became permanent residents during my early days, return for that final prized stage in their immigration journey – citizenship. I really started seeing some of my “old clients” filing for naturalization in my fourth and fifth years. However, now I am seeing more of those “old clients” whose cases involved some trickier issues along the long and scenic route toward permanent residency, such as removal (deportation) proceedings, the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), federal court litigation, and waivers. Many of these cases marked the first times that I saw and handled such legal issues as a new immigration attorney. They proved great learning opportunities and helped shape me as an attorney and person. I am grateful to have played a positive role in my clients’ lives and to have been entrusted to handle their cases.

Recently, I was thrilled to sit next to one of my “old clients” as he passed his naturalization exam and received his naturalization oath ceremony. During the interview, I recalled sitting next to him years before in completely different circumstances - at counsel table in immigration court. He was in removal proceedings facing a charge that he should be deported because he did not comply with NSEERS registration requirements. NSEERS was implemented in 2002 in response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. It required certain individuals from select countries, believed to pose national security risks, to register at ports of entry and local immigration offices. Criticism of the program gained momentum and the controversial policy and results are well documented. The Department of Homeland Security eventually removed the designated countries from the NSEERS list in 2011, but at the time of my client's removal case he was charged with having willfully failed to register for NSEERS. While the NSEERS registration system is now inactive, it still remains a part of immigration law, and an allegation of willful failure to register when the program was active could cause immigration problems.

My client happened to be from one of the designated NSEERS countries, but he did not know of NSEERS registration. Since my client was married to a U.S. citizen, he was eligible to adjust to permanent resident status in immigration court. However, for my client to become a permanent resident, the immigration judge needed to determine that his failure to register was reasonably excusable or not willful. After hearing my client's testimony, the immigration judge granted him permanent resident status that day in court and the government waived appeal. Upon hearing the decision, my client was quick to smile, as had been characteristic of him throughout the process, despite the great stress he and his wife were under. He shook my hand firmly, and in doing so managed to express a measure of gratitude that far exceeded the simple gesture. His wife wept in the hall. Soon after, my client kindly insisted on treating me to an impromptu celebratory lunch with his wife, mother-in-law, and stepdaughter.

A few years later, we were again sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, again a smile on his face. Again we would shake hands. However, this time in his other hand was a naturalization oath ceremony notice. He was just days away from becoming a U.S. citizen and celebrating again with his wife.

This is just one of my clients’ success stories, and fortunately beyond them there are thousands of others across the country who have a story to share that ends happily. I hope that with time I will only add more successful immigration stories, although I am well aware that not every case can end with a smile. Sometimes the laws and the facts are just stacked against you. That is why it is important to savor the wins and use them as fuel for the next case, the next person who walks through the door who may need your help. If some immigration reform materializes in the near future, those doors will open wider and provide opportunities to those who have forged strong ties to family and community despite living in the shadows. Hopefully they too will eventually be allowed to travel their own pathways to citizenship.

*Originally published in asiatimes.us June 2013.

If you have NSEERS or other immigration questions, call Robert C. Milla for a consultation.

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