Archive for Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Long road to gaining citizenship

July 11, 2007

I grew up with your kids. Well not literally with your kids, but I mean I've gone from K-12 and college in the state. We played Little League baseball together; we took joyrides in my first car when I turned 16 (which I'm still driving); and we went to the mall to rent our tuxedos for prom.

But during all of this I was not American, at least not by any legal definition.

In fact, I'm still not. While you read this, I'm waiting on notification on where and when I am going to be sworn into citizenship -- a goal that my family and I have been trying to reach for nearly 20 years.

In the early to mid '80s, my parents and some of my extended left my birth country of Guatemala (remember Danni Boatwright?) to seek asylum in the United States. Looking at Guatemalan history at that time, it's not hard to see why my parents wanted to leave -- and put in their shoes, most people, I think, would have too.

The peak of an ongoing civil war was reached in the '80s when a Reagan-backed, right-winged Christian fundamentalist government would send its U.S.-trained and armed death squads against the many indigenous Mayans or other civilians the government considered malcontents or part of the leftist guerrillas. Liberal-minded universities, like Guatemala's state university where my father was earning his architecture degree, were considered leftist and "dangerous."

When the murders and kidnappings started hitting the school -- imagine the Green Berets at KU -- my parents said it was time to go.

What followed after we got to the United States was a convoluted legal process that left my family teetering between political refugees and illegal immigrants.

My father had applied for political asylum, which if he got, could then help the rest of the family get asylum.

For about 10 years my father did not receive a reply to his request. And when he did, the reply stated that half of his case file had been lost so he could not be granted asylum. No asylum meant we could not stay. A lot happened in 10 years. My parents bought a house, one sister was getting ready to go to college, the other still in high school, and I was in middle school. Fortunately for my dad, he was not the only Central American who fell through the cracks and there was a special process for people like him to be granted legal status in the United States. Unfortunately, this did not apply to the rest of the family.

In 1997 my mother, my sisters and I had to plead our case before a judge as to why we shouldn't be deported. He realized that it would be hardship for the kids to go back to a country they didn't know after creating a life here, so he let us stay. Since my father was the main breadwinner, he was also allowed to stay. We got our green cards and then after five years we would be eligible for citizenship.

Now, I'm making it sound a lot easier than it really is. Each step of the process took months if not years to complete. Even when the judge allowed us to stay, it still took another year to get the paperwork from the government. All of this happened while the fear of deportation always loomed.

My family was lucky. Not all immigrants were able to get as far as we did. The legal process to immigrate to this country is long and it's hard, and it has only been made longer and harder since Sept. 11.

People who are debating immigration need to understand going through the current legal process of immigration takes a huge financial, emotional and physical toll on one's family, and it's not always possible or reasonable to expect someone to put their life or their family's life on hold for the next decade or more to improve their lives or their children's lives. People should remember this country was founded by the tired, the poor and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

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