Many questions have been raised in the current political debates over immigration. In an interview with The Christian Post, Chris Bentley, press secretary for the U.S. Citizenship and Naturalization Services, provided answers to some of those questions.
CP: I sometimes hear that the process of becoming a U.S. citizen is too complicated and should be simplified. Is it complicated?
Bentley: That's a term of art, figuring out if it is, or is not complicated, depending on who you talk to. There will be folks on the right side or the left side arguing vehemently that it is, or is not. What we can tell you is what the process is itself.
Individuals have to come to the United States on immigrant visas. They typically have to be sponsored by either a family member, in the vast majority of cases, or occasionally by an employer. Once they enter the United States as a permanent resident, statutorily, they have to wait five, or three [if married to a U.S. citizen], years to apply for citizenship. Then they can apply for citizenship. Our processing time is a little over four months right now, for those petitions.
There is that statutory five-year wait, from the time they enter as a permanent resident, that they can file for citizenship, based upon the law.
I'm not really sure where the term “complicated” comes in. I think it's a term of art based upon what people think the immigration system should be.
We are constrained by the law. We have to do what the law says, it is very clearly delineated about what can and cannot happen when it comes to naturalization.
CP: From the position of U.S. Citizenship and Naturalization Services, you have to go by what Congress has told you to do?
Bentley: Absolutely, we have to adjudicate each case. We don't just do naturalization, we do permanent residency, we do adoption cases, we do foreign worker cases. We decide all those cases based upon the information that is provided and based on immigration law to come up with a sound decision.
CP: When Congress tells you what is required for the process, are the reasons for that requirement provided?
Bentley: You're getting into now one of the interesting aspects of working for the federal government, working with federal law, which is congressional intent. And, no, when a law is passed there is no clearly defined, 'this is the intent of what we want to happen,' based upon the legislation we just passed.
Actually, even if congressional intent is to do X, if the law says 'do Y,' we have to do Y, because that is what the law says to do.
CP: In debates over illegal immigration, sometimes you hear people say “they need to get in the back of the line.” How does this “line” work? Is there a queue? Do you process the applications in the order you receive them?
Bentley: Yeah, you'll hear people talk about it, as you alluded to, the whole idea of the “back of the line.” The way that naturalization works is, as long as you're statutorily eligible to file, and the classic example is you have be a permanent resident, you have to be a green card holder for five years, if you meet that requirement, you can file at any time after that point.
Technically, when people talk about the “back of the line,” they're talking about the immigrant process, which has to do with the State Department's issuance of visas and the congressionally mandated quotas that are assigned to countries throughout the world.
For instance, it could take 15 years for certain immigrants from Mexico to get a visa to be able to come to the United States. It could take a year or two for an immigrant from Slovakia to be able to qualify for the same visa just because of congressionally mandated caps and the fact that there are fewer people trying to immigrate to the United States from Slovakia than from Mexico every year.
So that's another aspect of “they need to get in the back of the line,” trying to figure out exactly what “back of the line” means for the person who is using that analogy. For us, we just don't know. Unless you talk to the person using a term like that, it's hard to break it down completely for you.
It's, many times, not as cut and dry as it may seem. Everyone uses different terminology to mean different things. This “back of the line” analogy is a perfect example of that. It could mean multiple things.
CP: Do you have enough resources to process applications for citizenship in a reasonable period of time?
CP: So, there's not any sort of backlog with you, it more has to do with congressionally mandated caps?
Bentley: We, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, we don't have backlogs. We are processing cases in a little over four months, which is a monumental accomplishment. There were processing times of a little over two years in the old Immigration and Naturalization Service. (The INS was abolished in 2003 and replaced by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and two other agencies when the Department of Homeland Security was created.) So, processing is done very quickly, and very accurately as well.
When you're talking about “backlogs,” if you were to look at the State Department, they do have a backlog of cases waiting for immigrant visa issuance. There's just no doubt about that, and it's because of the congressionally mandated caps, but when you talk about our agency, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, there are no backlogs of naturalization visas.
CP: If someone is in the United States already without authorization, or their authorization expired, can they still apply for citizenship?
Bentley: Under certain circumstances, yes. But, those circumstances are very, very limited. There are certain circumstances where people could be sponsored by a family member. Let's say, true love calls and the individual gets married while they're in the United States, they could file to adjust their status. However, to be able to make that happen, they would have to request and secure something that's known as a “waiver of grounds of inadmissibility,” which would require them to travel out of the United States, go back to their home country, file a special form at the [U.S.] consulate, have that decided, then have the State Department issue them an immigrant visa to allow them to come back into the country legally.
You have to be legally admitted into the United States to receive a benefit or service like naturalization or permanent residency. So, it can happen. Does it happen very often? No, it doesn't. It's a very complicated and infrequently used process.
If you're in the United States without status, either over-staying or never having had permission to be in the United States in the first place, that is a serious X-mark against you when it comes to looking for an immigration service or benefit in the future.
CP: How many people become U.S. citizens a year?
Bentley: Between 600,000 to 700,000 people a year become citizens. About a million people each year become permanent residents – that is a step right below the citizenship step.
CP: Do you have to know English to become a citizen?
Bentley: Absolutely. There are some waivers for people with medical disabilities and for people who have been permanent residents for 15, 20 years and are a certain age, 55, 60 years old. But, by and large, yes, one of the requirements of citizenship is you have to be able to converse in conversational English, both orally and in writing.
CP: Is there anything about the process of becoming a citizen that you wish Americans understood better?
Bentley: Men, women and children, from around the world, still want to come to the United States and want to come here through the legal process so they can stay permanently.
At the turn of the century, immigrants would write about their feelings of coming to the United States for the first time. Many accounts speak of coming to a land where the trees look different and the birds sound different.
It's still true that people are giving up everything they have known in their life to pursue a dream, that is American citizenship, and it rings as true today as it ever has in our history. People want to come and be part of what we have here in the United States.