No less than five years ago, the dreams of U.S. citizenship for Herndon resident Elias Campos had been nothing more than wishful thinking.
After visiting with three local immigration attorneys, the immigrant from El Salvador in the United States with status as a temporary refugee, was met with the same result to his attempts at a clear path to citizenship: until a law is passed, there is no way to become a citizen.
"I tried, but all they kept telling me was that unless a new law was passed by the [federal] government, I wasn’t going to have any chance at getting my [citizenship] papers," Elias Campos said. "After that, I just stopped believing that I would ever get them unless something changed, a new law was passed or something."
But nearly four years ago, Elias Campos, a worker for a fence company, met Cristina, a U.S. citizen and local college student who grew up in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. She would be the woman who would eventually become his wife and mother to his two-year-old son.
The two were married in 2004, and just five months ago, turned in their final paperwork to officially petition for Elias Campos to join his wife and son as a citizen of the United States. They are waiting for the final response from the United States government, which they expect by the end of spring.
"It was important to both me and him to get his citizenship … if we wanted to take a trip or something outside of the country, he’s going to need to be able to come back and forth," said Cristina Campos. "And I want my son to be able to travel with his father to El Salvador so that he can meet his grandparents and they can be a part in his life as well."
The prospect of receiving his permanent legal U.S. residency status and first step towards becoming a naturalized citizen is one that Elias Campos knows he is lucky to have.
"It’s what all the undocumented people in this country want," he said. "I think it’ll be something very big, very important for both me and my family."
BUT ELIAS CAMPOS seems to be more the exception than the rule when it comes to success stories of immigrants who have landed in the United States with dreams of receiving their citizenship in recent decades, according to Herndon business owner Jorge Rochac, who regularly helps immigrants petition for legal U.S. residency.
For the vast majority of migrant workers, either here in the United States or in their home countries, the ultimate achievement of citizenship is a less than common feat, Rochac said.
To make the first step towards citizenship an immigrant must first be awarded permanent legal residency status, a designation reserved in nearly all cases for immigrants who are direct family of naturalized or native U.S. citizens, permanent refugees, political asylum seekers and roughly 55,000 annual diversity Visas awarded to countries with lower levels of immigration, according to Sean Saucier, spokesperson for United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. Businesses are allowed to petition workers for permanent legal residency, but only if they can prove that there are no workers available locally who can fill a particular and specialized job vacancy, he added.
Even then, the process can be expensive. Married couples submitting citizenship petitions for processing can sometimes pay several thousand dollars, an amount determined on a case by case basis, Rochac said.
The United States typically allows around 1 million immigrants to enter the U.S. as permanent legal residents each year, according to INS figures.
After maintaining this permanent legal residency status for anywhere from three to five years, legal residents must then petition the government, go through a review process to determine that they have not been convicted of any crimes, have diligently paid taxes and demonstrated "good moral character." Saucier said. That person may then be considered for citizenship upon completion of all tests and screening procedures.
A single criminal conviction, shaky tax records, failure to pay child support and even an excess of unpaid parking tickets can result in citizenship requests being declined, he added.
BUT HAVING a family member who is a naturalized U.S. citizen or a position in a place of business does not necessarily mean an easy path to citizenship.
While the children and spouses of U.S. citizens, asylum seekers and highly-trained professionals tend to be put on the fast track towards obtaining legal residency, lesser-skilled workers as well as brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens fall on a lower preference level and can routinely wait more than 10 years to receive their green cards, Saucier said. This is magnified for countries with high levels of immigration to the United States, based on fast-filling quotas, particularly from countries like China, India, Mexico and the Philippines, he added. The longest of which being a wait of nearly 25 years for the brother or sister of a U.S. citizen in the Philippines.
The highly selective nature of the immigration process to the United States has been a primary source of frustration among those wishing to come and find work in the U.S. legally. In many cases this has led them to jump the border, a direct cause of the swelling number of illegal immigrants living in the country with no citizenship status, Rochac said.
"The huddled and suffering masses don’t exist anymore as far as immigration to the United States goes," he said. "If you don’t have a connection, you’re out of luck. You have no chance."
SEVERAL TIMES a week, Rochac has to explain to immigrants searching for a way to get into compliance with federal labor laws this fact, and give them the only advice he can at the current time.
"I just tell them, the best thing you can do is to follow the rules as much as possible, to pay their taxes and to learn the laws and not to break them no matter what," he said. "And they nod and leave and hope that someday a law will get passed so that they can use all their records of good behavior to get their citizenship."
For Herndon residents Rudinne Otero, a U.S. citizen, and her husband Pedro Otero, a native of El Salvador, who were married in March of last year, following the legal process is long and expensive, but absolutely necessary. The two filed their petition for Pedro Otero’s citizenship in January of this year and are now waiting for a final response from the federal government.
"I’m just kind of praying that everything comes out all right because I need my husband here beside me," said Rudinne Otero, an insurance coordinator. "We need to be able to work here together legally to support each other and maintain our family."
The one thing that Rudinne Otero said she has had a hard time understanding is the extremely arduous process for immigrants to obtain their legal work authorization.
"I just have a hard time believing that the government would want to hold on citizenship this way when these people can be working and paying taxes," she said. "Isn’t that how our government and our economy operates? Wouldn’t we want more people out there to be paying taxes?"