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Immigrants: What to Expect When You're Expecting a Legal Status?

02/06/2013 03:52 pm ET | Updated Apr 08, 2013

Members of Congress and the president are working toward giving illegal immigrants a legal status. But what will it take for an immigrant 'illegals' or otherwise to becoming an American?

In 2000, I left the Gaza Strip and came to the United States for education. I left our home in Gaza where we are registered refugees and where my father teaches English in a U.N. school system serving Gaza's largest refugee camps. Fast forward seven years through culture shocks and homesickness. Upon my graduation from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, I moved to Washington, D.C. for an internship and later work. In 2007, I became a permanent resident of the United States, and I was told I could apply for citizenship five years from that date. People who get their Green Cards through marriages have to wait for three years before they can apply for American citizenship, but most Green Card holders have to wait for five years to qualify for application.

The most obvious motive for my seeking American citizenship is that I am a stateless person. As a stateless person, traveling is never a fun experience. Believe it or not, having an American passport makes my trip to see my family in Gaza a lot more tolerable. I do not have to wait for hours in some soggy and dark room hoping I would be granted transit entry. Another reason I am seeking to become a citizen is that I have come to admire is the separation of powers within the U.S. government. I think the system safeguards against the strong preying on the weak. I also love the open roads within this country, and the freedom one enjoys moving from one state into another. To be candid, better economic opportunities might have been a motive for me in the past, but not anymore.

In the meantime, in order to be in the clear as a Green Card holder, you must not leave the States for any period longer than six months at time. While I love my family very much, going home for people like me is never easy. Aside from the Israeli occupation, violence and the political gridlock, I have to fly through another country in order to see my family -- even though there's an international airport that is only a 30 minute drive from my Gaza home. So, it's never easy with the kind of travel documents I have. One time, I was sent back on the same airplane to the States for no fault of mine. Aside from staying in the U.S., one also must pay their taxes, and keep records of doing so. Committing crimes or engaging in or promoting violence is a big enough reason for application denial. The other things you have to do are apply, pay the fees, have a valid address and be good at paperwork. And once you apply, expect a trip to one of the immigration centers to take your biometric. That involves taking your photograph and fingerprints -- your fingers will feel like celebrities being scrutinized by paparazzi. Those are then used for the background check and for the application. There you can pick up a study guide for the U.S. citizenship exam.

A few months later, you'll be called for an interview with an immigration officer, who goes over the application with you, and informs you of whatever additional documents you need. If you are not good with keeping records and filing paperwork this can be very stressful. You are under oath during this proceeding. Then you can start your exam, on which you need to attain a certain number of correct answers to be eligible for citizenship. The test covers questions about the history, government and politics in America in addition to very basic reading and writing skills. While most of the questions were fairly easily and basic, a few of them might be too difficult for even Americans. As a news junkie and a resident of Washington, D.C., for me the test was a walk in the park. I had to be able to read and write in English, I was asked to write "Canada is North of The United States of America"

If you meet their metrics, and agree to give up loyalty to your home country, only then you are recommend you for approval and then you would get a notice for a court date to get sworn in as an newly minted American. Congratulation, as my friend Sarah puts it, "You should have a party to celebrate after you become naturalized. We can have a barbeque and drink Coke and watch baseball and listen to "Sweet Home Alabama" and other stereotypical American things"

While I have legally resided in the United States since 2000, my status in between 2000-2007 was a nonimmigrant student visa. So as far as immigration is concerned, I did not exist until 2007. There are many paths toward securing a Green Card: starting a half million dollar business and creating jobs is one way to get a Green Card, working for an American employer who would be willing to sponsor you is another. And yes, there are those who get their Permanent Residency card through marriage and asylum. In some cases, people living at home can win the lottery of Green Cards. About 55,000 are given out annually; there are hundreds of thousands of Americans who have became American citizens this way.

One big question remains unanswered, considering the sheer volume of work involved. According to the ICE website, there are a reported 20,000 staff working in 400 offices in the States and around the world. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (USICE) is already inundated with applications for legal applicants, and they are known to be slow in responding to applicants. Imagine what 11 million more applications would do to this already understaffed agency. On top of everything they do, it would take those 20,000 employees years to go through those applications. For example, in 2010, USCIS has naturalized 495,232 immigrants. Some of those applying for citizenship might not live long enough to be sworn in. I do not see those elected officials who want to cut the size of government authorizing growing USICE's budget to meet the anticipated growth in applications as a result of this immigration deal.

I can see how the issues of citizenship and immigration are often confused. I think we can be open to immigration, and that does not mean all immigrants become U.S. citizen merely by crossing the border. Obviously these are two different things. The process of naturalization is another thing entirely. Clearly, the Constitution gives Congress the power to establish uniform methods for naturalization. America is a vast country that can be the shining city on a hill, but it's also a land of law and order. Immigrants have built this country and are now one of the keys to combat the dropping American infertility rate. More people means a greater division of labor, and thus, more jobs. To move from being a permanent resident to becoming an American citizen will at least take five years, and to be frank America is worth the wait.