By Madison Medeiros
With the current United States administration focused solely on changing the immigration process, it becomes difficult for natural-born citizens—those who do not have to undergo the journey of citizenship—to recognize and understand how the process truly works.
First and foremost, what makes an immigrant “illegal” in the U.S.? Is it sneaking across the border, or simply being undocumented in the country?
“I cannot emphasize enough: the act of being present in the U.S. without documentation is not a crime under federal law. It is a civil infraction,” said Rachel Self, P.C., an attorney at law specializing in criminal defense and immigration law, with offices in Falmouth and the greater Boston area.
Self appears regularly on CNN and Fox News Channel as a legal analyst. Her work focuses on family immigration, deportation defense, citizenship and post-conviction relief.
“The confusion lies in the legal differences between improper entry and unlawful presence,” Self said.
Under federal criminal law, it is a misdemeanor crime for a non-citizen to enter or attempt to enter the U.S. at any time or place other than the designated legal ports of entry, said Self. Eluding examination or inspection by immigration officers, or attempting to enter by willfully concealing, falsifying or misrepresenting facts are additionally a misdemeanor crime.
The punishment under this federal law is no more than six months of incarceration and up to $250 in civil penalties for each illegal entry, according to Self.
Unlike improper entry, unlawful presence is not a crime. Although it is a violation of federal immigration laws to remain in the country without legal authorization, this violation is not criminal, but instead punishable by civil penalties. Civil penalties include deportation, or removal from the country.
“Some may assume that all immigrants who are in the U.S. without legal status must have committed improper entry. This simply isn’t the case,” said Self. “Many foreign nationals legally enter the country on a valid work or travel visa, but fail to exit before their visa expires for a variety of reasons.”
Visas are issued to those who want to come to the country to work, travel or pursue a business or education. The U.S. only issues so many visas at a time, which are at high demand.
Self stresses that individuals within the U.S. border, regardless of their status of citizenship, have the right to a due process. This includes the rights to a speedy trial and counsel all under the Fifth and Sixth Amendments.
“If you’ve come into the country legally, with documents—even if you came on a tourist visa or student visa—and you overstay the visa, you can apply for a change of status,” said Richard Vengroff from Community Action Committee of Cape Cod & Islands (CACCI), who assists with its offered Citizenship Training.
CACCI’s main office is located on North Street, Hyannis with a satellite office in Falmouth, on Jones Road and has been operating for the past three years.
The Citizenship Training provides immigrants with civic courses and English courses and preparation for the U.S. Citizenship test. The organization is certified by Homeland Security and staffed with full-time attorneys and paralegals, along with volunteers who are experienced, cultured and bilingual, according to Vengroff.
The staff provides immigrants with referrals to resources in the community and provides information about legal permanent residence status, becoming a citizen and benefit eligibility requirements.
“We have probably, here on the Cape, about 15,000 to 20,000 people who were born elsewhere. Some of whom who have already become permanent residents, some of whom are just starting the process, some of whom are DACA,” said Vengroff.
The process of becoming a permanent resident starts with a green card, which is typically issued to non-citizens for three years or longer. From there, they can file for citizenship.
When looking at the road map to legal citizenship, there are many different avenues, road ways and paths to take, along with many misconceptions to address.
The process is long, expensive, but rewarding.
“[Non-citizens] have got to go through first expenditure of becoming a green card holder and then the second level is [when] we move them from there to citizenship,” said Vengroff. “It’s not like tomorrow, it’s never tomorrow.”
Someone who has a green card applying for citizenship will pay about $725. The U.S. government does not support any funding, said Vengroff.
“If a client who just got married, for example, and wants [their spouse] to get a green card and become a permanent resident, the fees from the forms they fill out is going to cost them about $1,750,” said Vengroff. “Which has to be paid in cash or by money order basically at the time they file the form.”
Those undergoing the process to citizenship will have to pay fines such as $85 for fingerprints, $200 to $300 on medical exams by licensed doctors from Homeland Security, on top of documentation and processing fees.
CACCI’s focus has been on family reunification, where clients can sponsor a spouse, parents, biological or adopted children who live overseas and are not a U.S. citizen.
“Now there’s a big, big, disconnect between reality and what you may hear from [President Donald Trump] and the administration,” Vengroff said. “They talk about ‘chain migration’ [but] it doesn’t exist. I mean, really, it’s just totally fallacious. People aren’t bringing distant relatives.”
“If you’re a U.S. citizen you can sponsor your parents, your biological or adopted children and spouse. That’s it. You cannot sponsor a cousin, you cannot sponsor a grandparent, you cannot sponsor an uncle or an aunt, cousins, none of that. It can’t happen. It doesn’t happen. It’s all a lie,” Vengroff added.
Vengroff warns that the administration is now trying to cut back on other forms of legal immigration, such as asylum seekers and refugees.
An asylum seeker is searching for international help and protection from their country. Not every asylum seeker will be recognized as a refugee, but each refugee at one point was an asylum seeker. Countries operate within its own borders and someone who is an asylum seeker has not yet been approved by their own government to become a refugee.
A refugee is an individual who has fled their country and unable to return based on the fear of being persecuted due to their race, religion, nationality, or membership of a particular political or social group.
Since Trump coming into office, Vengroff expressed after dealing with refugees for years, the organization has hardly worked with any.
“There’s millions of refugees. In the past, we’ve taken in about 100,000 a year. But, the current administration’s cut that way back, so now there’s a relatively small amount,” said Vengroff. “I think we took in 7 [refugees] this year.”
With this only being a brief look in to the immigration process, one can clearly see that it is nowhere near simple, cheap, timely or easy to understand.
“There’s so many myths out there,” Vengroff said.
Which is why it is up to the American people to educate themselves and fully understand the process, before jumping to drastic conclusions or taking in misinformation as truth.