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Sayu Bhojwani

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Being Immigrant, Becoming American

Posted: 02/15/11 03:40 PM ET

In the past week, reports that Congress is planning on taking up immigration reform again have sporadically appeared in the press and blogosphere, once again sparking the hopes of many immigrants whose lives are deeply intertwined with the legislative battles taking place in states across our country. If Senators Schumer and Graham indeed succeed in introducing a new bill and securing the necessary support for it to pass, nearly 12 million new Americans will begin the pathway to citizenship. This is a pathway way that is riddled with obstacles, even for those who enter the country on a work permit or valid visa. In my case, the road from being an international student to becoming citizen took 17 years, three visa statuses, and significant determination and resources.

Regardless of whether Congress soon overcomes critical obstacles facing comprehensive immigration reform -- lack of support on both sides of the aisle, an anti-immigrant mood across the country, and a slowly recovering, but still weak economy -- it is inevitable that our nation will gain approximately 12 million new citizens in the coming years. To prepare for this eventuality, government, nonprofits and philanthropy each need to build the systems that will support this new population. Although undocumented immigrants are already participating in our civic and economic life, their participation will greatly increase as barriers to their involvement come down. Government agencies will need to ensure that, through responsible language access policy and culturally sensitive outreach, Americans of all backgrounds are able to access critical services. In greater numbers than before, nonprofits will facilitate immigrants' ability to learn English, apply for residency and citizenship, learn about their civic responsibilities, and pass the citizenship test. Philanthropy will help create much-needed infrastructure for the delivery of these services in an efficient and effective manner.

In the end, though, services are only one part of the equation. For immigrants who are currently undocumented, and those who are already here as citizens, the other part of the equation is perseverance and perception. When faced with bureaucracy, xenophobia, and the persistent sense that you don't belong, it takes perseverance to reach full citizenship, on paper. And when you perceive that your views and your communities are not fully validated, then feeling like a full citizen is an impossible dream. Our challenge as a nation is not only to provide the means to achieve the dream -- sensible immigration policy, responsive government agencies, resourced nonprofit support services -- but also to reduce the psychological and societal barriers -- more public officials who represent the diversity of our citizens, a diverse leadership pipeline from schools to the Senate, and a positive public discourse about the presence of immigrants in our country. None of these require Congressional debate; they are good old-fashioned methods of engaging citizens and participating in the institutions of civil society. Not only can we do this work now, it may even help the comprehensive immigration reform debate when it comes around again.