Mistakes to avoid in applying for US citizenship

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The Sevandos, legal immigrants facing deportation after being denied US citizenship. AP PHOTO

NEW YORK, New York — Dr. Pedro Servano and his wife, Salvacion, have
lived in the United States as legal permanent residents for over 30
years. Their four children are Americans, having been born in this
country.

But when the Filipino couple applied for US citizenship in 1991,
their application was not only denied, but they were also put in removal
proceedings.  It has now been over two decades since they started
battling a deportation order and to remain in the country.

Like the Servanos, there are many long-term immigrants who
believed they were in good moral standing for naturalization. However,
because of past mistakes or through the application period, they were
rejected from completing the final step of their U.S. immigration
process.

According to immigration lawyers and advocates for U.S.
citizenship, these legal immigrants may have run afoul of complicated
immigration laws without even knowing it.

Others may have had a criminal conviction or provided untruthful
information in their application, which are all grounds for
naturalization denial, getting their green card revoked or an order of
deportation.

“Secretly” married

For the Servanos, the federal government charged them with
misrepresenting their marital status when they first came to the United
States.

In the early 1980s, according to several reports, their mothers
moved separately to this country as legal permanent residents. They
filed successfully the petition for Pedro and Salvacion to get their
green cards under the category of unmarried children.

As they settled in their new country, Pedro completed his medical
residency in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania. He and Salvacion, a registered
nurse, got married in New Jersey in 1987. Without any problems, they
renewed their green cards every 10 years.

But when they submitted their application for naturalization on
their own, the immigration officers reportedly discovered that the
Servanos were secretly married in the Philippines, before the green
cards were issued to them in 1985.

Accused of lying to get their green cards, the couple received an order of deportation.

No guess-timating

“Anything you say that isn’t absolutely correct, even if you are
just guess-timating your answers, will be considered a lie,” said Paul
Zorlan, an immigration lawyer based in Dallas, Texas. “Lying is perjury
and you can find yourself being deported.”

Applicants who withhold their real names, try to guess the
birthday of their parents or the exact date of their departure and
arrival of their past travels abroad, or not being precise about their
medical condition, Zorlan added, may be considered “committing fraud”
and the immigration office could reject their applications.

A study conducted by Migration Policy Institute, an independent
research organization, shows that as applications for naturalization
have surged in the last 12 years, denial rates have also been
consistently higher at any time.

The highest year was in 2000, when 399,670 applicants were denied
or one-third of the applicants. Eight years later, the report added,
the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) rejected more than
121,000 naturalization petitions, representing 10.4 percent of the
1,167,822 naturalization applications presented.

Reasons for denials, according to MPI, may include: applicant
could not prove five years of permanent residence in the United States;
was determined to have lack of allegiance to the United States; have bad
moral character (which includes criminal convictions); or failed the
English language or American civics test.

Finding pro bono legal help

Facing barriers such as limited English-language skills and
ignorance of highly technical immigration laws, immigrants can avail of
free citizenship workshops in different cities across the country. These
workshops, sponsored by New Americans Campaign, are being held each month.

“This campaign has already spent $85 million in services for
eligible immigrants,” Luis Arango-Petrocchi, project manager for the
citizenship program at Catholic Charities of Dallas (CCD), said in a
briefing with ethnic media. “We’re here to help complete your N-400
[new] application [form], and have immigration attorneys and accredited
representatives to review your applications.”

The biggest benefit of the workshop, according to advocates, is
that it helps examine the applicants’ eligibility for naturalization and
address early detection of red flags, if any, in their applications.

“At the citizenship workshops, we help them practice the test and
interview questions and refer them to ESL [English as Second Language]
classes,” added Dan Adriansen, CCD’s immigration case manager. “We also
inform our clients where to find court documents, if they need to show
them, and see if they are eligible for the [$680] application fee
waiver.”

Benefited from workshop

A nonprofit briefing in Dallas, Texas, on mistakes to avoid in applying for US citizenship. PHOTO BY ANTHONY ADVINCULA

Mario Vargas, a 23-year-old political science student at University
of Texas, was one of those who benefited from these citizenship
workshops. When he applied for an internship with a federal government
agency, he realized that his green card was not enough.

“I was told that they will accept me if I became a U.S. citizen.
During the [naturalization] interview, I asked the interviewer if they
could speed up the process,” he added. “And I was told that they will do
the pledge that day so I could get the internship.”

Through the help of Proyecto Inmigrante, one of the immigrant
groups based in Dallas and Forth Worth, Texas, that is part of the
citizenship campaign, Vargas became a naturalized US citizen last year.

“Between 2010 and 2014, there has been an increase in the number
of legal permanent residents eligible for naturalization, and yet we are
not tapping into that,” said Claudio Ortega-Hogue, Texas director of
civic engagement for NALEO Educational Fund.

Philippines and naturalization rate

Nationally, in 2012, an estimated 13.3 million immigrants were
granted legal permanent resident status in the country — and nearly 8.8
million were eligible for naturalization. Yet, according to the
Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Immigration Statistics,
only 757,434 were naturalized.

Of all immigrants from different ethic groups who naturalized in
2012, about 5.9 percent came from the Philippines— the highest among
Asian countries, followed by India, 5.7 percent; China, 4.2 percent;
Vietnam, 3.1 percent; and Korea, 2 percent. Mexican immigrants had the
leading number of naturalization at 13.5 percent.

Some of the obstacles that people get deterred from applying for
naturalization include lack of English skills and civic knowledge,
criminal and immigration history, and the $680 fees for each applicant.

To be eligible for naturalization, the applicant must be a legal
permanent resident and at least 18 years old; have lived in the United
States continuously for five year or three years if married to a U.S.
citizen.

The applicant must also be able to speak, read and understand
basic English; pass a background check; show knowledge of U.S.
government and history; and swear allegiance to the United States.

Acquiring citizenship gives immigrants not only the right to vote
and to work for the federal government, but also protects them from
deportation, allows them to travel and live abroad indefinitely without
losing their status in the United States and petition their children and
immediate family members, advocates say.

“A petition from a citizen has a faster approval than the one
filed by a legal permanent resident or a green card holder,” added
Adriansen.

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