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Standing in Line?

Imagine an application form that asked you as one of the first questions whether you were a “sheperd” or a “non-sheperd” (anything from pet groomer to a CEO) and the instructions on the form indicated that applications for “sheperds” would have to go through the Department of Homeland Security while the applications for “non-sheperds” would be handled by USCIS (the US Citizenship and Immigration Services). You may wonder, why? Sheep? And, when was this form last updated? A native US citizen never gets to see this form. As a so called “legal alien” I got a good laugh out of it while “standing in line” for my green card.

Anti-Immigration activists often argue illegal immigrants “should just stand in line” like legal immigrants as if there was a discernible line in which to stand. I find this attempt to pull legal immigrants into the xenophobic camp offensive. By far not everyone gets a chance to “stand in line” and I was privileged to do so. In the process I spent 14 years of my life completely unclear as to my status in this country, my rights, and my future.

I was allowed to “stand in line” because I had something to offer. My native country (Germany) provided me with free education including higher education. I came to this country with a masters and a doctorate in hand. This allowed me to obtain a student visa (F1), to attend graduate school in the US, and to earn another doctorate. After graduating (again) I spent a year on what is called “Optional Practical Training” (OPT for short), was sponsored by my employer (University of Connecticut) for the H1 work-visa, before finally obtaining my employment-based green card. I had to hold this green card for a minimum of 5 years before I could start applying for US citizenship. It took me even longer because I had to negotiate with my native country to retain my original citizenship. The intervening years were a time filled with perpetual anxiety and uncertainty.

In addition to the uncertainty all graduates face whether they will find a job, my uncertainty was elevated because I needed to find an employer willing to expend thousands of Dollars to sponsor my green card. What are the odds? And once I had a job I was unclear whether I was allowed to change it. I hired a lawyer and this is what my lawyer wrote: “You obtained your permanent residence based on an employment-based case. If you leave your employment shortly after obtaining your permanent residence, the USCIS might infer fraud in your case ... [but] bear in mind that you are not an indentured servant and if a better job offer is made to you, you would be foolish not to accept it. Make sure that any changes in employment you make are reasonable in light of the circumstance.” What is reasonable? To a bureaucrat? I did not change jobs.

I spent years living in the US, working in the US, and paying taxes in the US, while not having the right to vote. As a public policy professor I was keenly aware of the principle “no taxation without representation.” Yet with all non-naturalized legal immigrants in this country this principle is routinely violated. And this is the reason the immigration process is so hopelessly convoluted and baroque. If legal immigrants had the right to vote, chances are the process would be streamlined (and forms occasionally updated). I think it is time to let all permanent residents in the US vote.

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