Sorry, You Cannot Become a US Citizen!

Sorry, You Cannot  Become a US Citizen!

Aref Assaf

Bergen Record Op-Ed

While the heated and polarized debate on the issue of illegal immigration intensifies, little is surfaced about those who face untold obstacles in their desire to legally become American citizens. Exuberant filings fees coupled with years of delays and bureaucratic entanglements at immigration and consular offices have led some to choose an entry in residency in this country via illegal means.Often illegal immigration is enveloped in violations of US laws, abuses of generous medical and housing assistance and impact on the US job market. However, legal immigration to the United States is unduly overburdened by security concerns about the ethnicity and religious beliefs of those wishing to immigrate. Anti-immigration pundits often concede that they are not against legal immigration whereby people apply for visa to immigrate to the U.S.

The fact remains that for thousands of Arabs and Muslims, this option is often not possible. Profiling as a means to enhance national security has been proven ineffective, discriminatory and encourages acts of hate. Current and proposed policy changes may lead to a frenzy competition between legal and illegal immigrants vying for the limited number of visas.

We laud the efforts of Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) who unsuccessfully introduced an amendment to the current immigration bill to prioritize the issuance of visa favoring those who are here legally and want to become US citizens. In a press release, Menendez writes, “Here is another case for you to consider. You are a U.S. citizen and have paid your taxes, served your nation, attend your church, and make a good living. You have petitioned to have your adult child come to America, but did so after the arbitrary date of May 1, 2005. Under this bill, the U.S. citizen would lose that right. However, those who are undocumented in the country after that May 1, 2005, date actually get a benefit.” Sadly the amendment was killed. We hope the Senator will continue to pursue this important issue now that the entire immigration bill was defeated. This will be the message we will deliver t to the Senator when we meet with him in August.

Various studies and reports by Arab and Muslim American groups such as the ADC, AAI, and CAIR have collectively argued that the government is illegally delaying the naturalization applications of immigrants by profiling individuals it perceives to be Muslim and subjecting them to an indefinite series of security checks. These reports sternly accuse the U.S. government of turning immigration institutions into security stations that penalize individuals because of their religion and national origin.

Undoubtedly, our country is facing serious immigration issues relating to illegal immigrants but the plight of Muslims and Arabs has to do with legal immigration procedures and requirements. Since 2001, immigration law has increasingly been used to target our community. In 2002, the government instituted the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), which required non-citizen males from mostly Muslim and Arab countries that were designated as threats to national security to formally register with the government. Strikingly but not unexpectedly not one of the 93,000 men “specially registered” was charged with a terrorism-related offense; instead, the consequences of special registration were mass deportations and detention for minor or technical immigration violations. Discriminatory policies have also been implemented in visa applications and immigration raids.

Take the case of “Ahmad”, a forty-year-old software engineer with a thriving software company and with no criminal record. Ahmad, like thousands of immigrants, has chosen the United States as their new home: they abide by U.S. laws, pay U.S. taxes, and contribute to our nation’s economy and strengthen its multicultural foundations. “Ahmad” has also passed every test and fulfilled every requirement related to the naturalization process, but he continues to wait for security clearance on his application. The only update on his four-year-long application is a demand for updated fingerprints.

“MQ” is also being denied permanent residency even though he is a leader of a major Islamic center in NJ and has often exemplified true citizenship qualities and voices of moderation- exactly the type of individuals we need in our midst. Sadly, caught between two worlds but unable to call either home, these individuals are living in limbo; they are treated as outsiders in their new home and are hindered in their ability to maintain ties with loved ones in their country of origin.

Delays and outright denials have subsequently encouraged some Arabs and Muslims to illegally enter the US through the Mexican border or in some instances deliberately obtain a tourist visa with the full intention of never leaving the country. The delays have also created the cumulative effect of taxation without representation, disenfranchising a large segment of our community by preventing them from exercising their right to vote and more seriously gave credence to the perception of being unwelcome in their adopted country. Fuller assimilation in the larger American society is thwarted as many in our community choose to cocoon themselves inside their geographic and ethnic enclaves.

It cannot be conclusively proven that these policies are purposefully or intentionally discriminatory, in that they appear to be profiling individuals based on their name, race, religion, gender, or national origin. But it is our contention that prolonged security checks in the naturalization process have the effect of unfairly burdening our community. Such policies and their subsequent effects are illegal under international and existing US laws.

Profiling whether based on race, religion, ethnicity, or national origin is not only illegal and unconstitutional but it has been proven not to be a reliable substitute for credible intelligence gathering techniques to identify potential threats. It does not render our country safer. Profiling whether intentional or consequential fosters suspicion and insecurity and, if not curbed,  it will institutionalize discriminatory and prejudicial acts and attitudes.

As the government increasingly expands its focus on threats stemming from  “homegrown” terrorist sleeper cells (as in the case of the Ft. Dix Six) such scrutiny, and the resulting human rights violations may continue to worsen for the Arab and Muslim community. The resulting wounds will increasingly prove to be self-inflicted. We hope that as politicians revisit the immigrate debate, they need to be reminded that any immigration reforms which punish legal immigrants are unfair and would seriously impact the values of our cherished democratic system.

A recent 200-page report by MERIP argues that non-immigrant visa restrictions for Arabs have negatively hurt America’s economy, further alienated America’s friends in the region and above all did not serve our long-term strategic interests.