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Starting today, legal immigrants face new hurdles to citizenship

Set to take effect today, new changes to U.S. immigration policies appear likely to block increasing numbers of legal immigrants from potential citizenship by ratcheting up penalties for mistakes on applications and then accelerating the process for deportation, according to immigration experts.

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The new policy language — written specifically to trigger on the anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — gives broad authority to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service administrators to deny a legal immigrant’s application for a green card or citizenship over simple clerical errors.

“The adjudicators (now) have the capability and, potentially, encouragement to issue a denial whenever there is something missing,” said Xiao Wang, co-founder of Seattle’s Boundless immigration service. “This is a significant change.”

Previously, internal policy encouraged USCIS administrators to work with applicants when requiring additional documents and requesting clarification because the lengthy process is increasingly complicated and, often, English isn’t the primary language of the applicants.

For example, Wang said, under the previous guidelines, if a person applied for citizenship as a result of marrying a U.S. Citizen and he or she forgot to include the required marriage certificate, the application’s administrator would “reject” the application and request for additional documents.

“The applicant was given a chance to fix the problem,” Wang said.

In 2016, eight million people applied for a green card or citizenship. About 20 percent – 1.6 million – received requests for additional documents, according to U.S. immigration service figures.

But under the new language, the reviewing officer, “has the ability to deny the application,” outright, Wang said, not only ending the citizen application process immediately but, as is the case in denials, also keeping the $1,760 application fee.

“It is not a trivial amount of money. People save for months to afford this.”

The federal government also added new policy language policy stating that if the application is denied, “the alien is not lawfully present in the United States” which then can trigger notification to immigration courts and deportation hearings.

So, in the event of a mistake by the applicant or the government, the new language has the capacity to eliminate the time to fix a mistake or add information. And that can trigger a denial. When an application is denied, the applicant is considered “out of status,” and is targeted for deportation.

In effect, Wang said, the federal government’s effort to curb illegal immigration also is sweeping up land blocking legal immigrants who chose to follow the letter of the law when applying for green cards and U.S. citizenship.

“These are people are willing to give up everything to make a great strides in this country,” Wang said.

In fact, it was this sacrifice that led Wang to co-found Boundless in the first place. Wang, 32, and his family fled to the United States from China’s cultural revolution when he was three. Eventually, his family settled in Bothell.

His parents gave up everything to move to the United States and risk becoming U.S. Citizens. The process, even in pre-Sept. 11 attacks, was complicated and financially difficult.

As an adult, Wang had the opportunity to create a low-cost service guide legal immigrants through the process of becoming U.S. citizens. He said Boundless receives 5,000 queries each month for help.

But these immigration language changes, he said, do more harm to the United States than good.

“We have prospered greatly as a nation by having immigrants bring in new ideas,” he said. “It a core part of what has made us grow as a country.”

“What I worry about as someone who loves this country, this along with other sets of immigration rules will reduce the overall appeal of coming to the United States.”

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