OPINION

Addressing immigration and citizenship issues, No. 4

The Chronicle Express

This is the Penn Yan Action Coalition’s last column exploring the United States’ immigration system. We planned to devote this edition to the comprehensive bill moving through Congress, but events from the past weeks illustrate how quickly news and politics evolve, especially around immigration. Since we submitted our last column, there have been two developments that are worth addressing before moving on.

First, the Biden administration announced it would be reverting to the previous version of the citizenship test from the one established under President Donald Trump. We’ve been sharing questions from the new test in these columns, and we will finish the series accordingly. Regardless of the version, our hope is that an exploration of the knowledge required to become a citizen helps you to better appreciate this aspect of the process.

Second, news broke that Biden’s Department of Homeland Security had reopened temporary facilities for unaccompanied migrant children, eliciting comparisons to the Trump administration policy of family separation and the specter of “kids in cages.” PYAC looks forward to a future where it is unthinkable to detain children at any border; however, we recognize the pressing need to manage unaccompanied arrivals under the circumstances dictated by the ongoing pandemic. We echo immigrant advocates’ calls to resolve this issue and to treat all migrants, especially the most vulnerable among them, with the dignity they deserve.

Of course, the best way to achieve lasting change in immigration outcomes is to significantly reform the system, which is what the Biden administration aimed to do in its first month -- and the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 would continue this progress. It’s the first comprehensive immigration reform introduced since 2013, when the last effort passed in the Senate but was blocked in the House of Representatives. Congress has not passed any measures that support immigrants in over 30 years. If enacted, the present bill could make deep changes to the root causes of the irregular migration that results in poor outcomes for people on all sides of the issue.

Among its provisions is an eight-year pathway to citizenship for the approximately 11 million undocumented migrants already living in and contributing to our communities -- a five-year path to permanent residence, followed by a three-year wait for naturalization.  Certain categories of migrants, such as those benefiting from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, those under Temporary Protected Status, and agricultural workers, would be eligible to have their cases expedited. Legal immigration would be expanded, rather than curtailed as it often was under the previous administration, and the three- and ten-year bars on re-entry to individuals who left or were removed from the US will be eliminated -- a move that will help reunite families.

Alongside efforts to extend a path to citizenship for individuals currently in the United States, the bill also focuses on addressing the conditions in Central America that spur migration toward our borders. Increased assistance to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras would focus on reducing the corruption, violence, and poverty that cause people to flee their homes. The bill also establishes designated processing centers throughout Central America to register and process displaced people seeking refugee status, reducing the numbers of migrants seen by Americans as possible security threats. In addition, border resources would be supplemented by technology that can better process asylum seekers, identify narcotics and other contraband, and provide surveillance in unprotected areas.

The passage of this bill would tangibly improve outcomes for migrants and Americans alike. Moreover, an often-overlooked but essential component of any president’s impact on an issue is the cultural one, the way his or her actions and tone shape public opinion. Something as simple as speaking about immigrants and refugees with empathy and compassion can turn the heat down on the national mood. Accordingly, the Biden administration has taken one simple step to reframe the way the public sees this issue: in official documents, the word "alien" has been replaced with "noncitizen." This seemingly small detail could have an outsized impact on Americans’ views, reducing the sense of the immigrant as a threatening "other."

Citizenship questions

Here is the final set of questions to test your knowledge of what’s contained in the citizenship civics test.

1. What is the rule of law?

2. Name one power of the president.

3. Name one power that is only for the federal government and one power that is only for the states.

4. What is one way Americans can serve their country?

5. Why is it important to pay federal taxes?

6. What did the civil rights movement do?

We hope you have found this series helpful and enlightening.  We plan to write periodic follow-ups to check in on current events and the administration’s progress.  We also hope that you’ll participate in our upcoming community read of “Home Now”  by Cynthia Anderson, which will be available at Long’s Cards and Books (and remember to send us an email at pyactioncoalition@gmail.com to enter for a chance to win two free copies!).  Watch the local newspapers for dates and events, as well as our Facebook page, listed under our name, Penn Yan Action Coalition.  We urge you to keep engaged and open-minded in your pursuit of understanding the complex issue of immigration and, especially, the real people that it impacts.

Answers to citizenship questions

1. Everyone must follow the law; leaders/government must obey the law; no one is above the law.

2. Signs bills into law; vetoes bills; enforces laws; commander in chief; chief diplomat

3. Federal: print and mint currency; declare war; create an army; make treaties; set foreign policy.  States: provide schooling, safety and police; give driver’s licenses; approve zoning

4. Vote; pay taxes; obey the law; serve in the military; run for office; work for local/state/federal government

5. Required by law/Constitution; all people pay to fund the government; civic duty 

6. Fought to end racial discrimination