NPR Story
1:45 pm
Mon March 11, 2013

Could Immigrants Visit Home Countries Under Gang Of Eight's Path To Citizenship?

A bipartisan group of senators laying the foundation on immigration reform, known as the Gang of Eight, have agreed on a pathway for the 11 million undocumented immigrants to attain citizenship.

One of the most controversial components of the immigration debate was forged in closed-door negotiations. As the Los Angeles Times reports the agreement is not too different from President Barack Obama’s proposal:

The bill would require illegal immigrants to register with Homeland Security Department authorities, file federal income taxes for their time in America and pay a still-to-be-determined fine. They also must have a clean law enforcement record.

Once granted probationary legal status, immigrants would be allowed to work but would be barred from receiving federal public benefits, including food stamps, family cash assistance, Medicaid and unemployment insurance.

Still up in the air is how long immigrants would have to wait before obtaining legal resident status or a green card. Aides quoted in the article said it could be 10 years or longer.

For thousands of Mexican, Filipino, Chinese and Indian immigrants a 10-year wait for a green card is a welcomed endpoint to the long, unending line they currently face.

But there’s another hanging question, will these undocumented immigrants — under “probationary status” — be able to visit their home countries?

Under current immigration law, immigrants who crossed the border illegally, and stayed in the U.S. longer than a year, face a 10-year bar from applying for a visa if they ever leave the U.S. This is called “unlawful residence.”

Unlawful residence continues to be a huge deterrent for undocumented immigrants hoping to briefly visit their countries origin. If accrued, the 10-year bar on applying for a visa — on top of long wait times — means the pathway to citizenship has just gotten exponentially, if not infinitely, longer.

But even after immigrants obtain a green card, the hurdles they face for citizenship have deterred many from even applying.

For a case study, look no further than Mexicans, the largest group of undocumented U.S. immigrants. Although 93 percent of the individuals polled would seek citizenship only 36 percent had done so.

Among the reasons cited for not naturalizing were needing to learn English, the citizenship test being too demanding and the high cost of the $680 application.

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