Accountant Imad Doski, who is Kurdish, has been applying for citizenship for five years./The Tennessean
By Janell Ross, The Tennessean
Imad Doski applied for his U.S. citizenship five years ago with dreams of a high-dollar job translating Kurdish and Arabic.
Since then, the native of Iraq has discovered one private contractor pays U.S. citizens $60,000 more per year than other immigrants. Another only hires citizens.
"When you are a citizen, opportunities are different, pay is sometimes different, people sometimes look at you differently," said Doski, a Nashville bookkeeper.
His efforts to gain that elusive status have been stymied, but his instincts are right. A new report on immigrant employment found connections between U.S. citizenship and higher incomes, broader career options and lower poverty rates.
Immigrants who have become citizens earn on average almost 15 percent more than their non-citizen counterparts, said Heidi Shierholz, a labor economist and author of the study for the Washington-based think tank Economic Policy Institute. She admits the study can't account for individual immigrants' drive or skill at navigating bureaucracy, but the data show immigrants who become citizens out-earn even native-born Americans - a median income of $57,823 compared with $56,000.
"To the extent that people are worried that that there are enclaves of immigrants that aren't willing to assimilate, this shows that if you give people a path to citizenship, they start to look just like you and me ... economically," Shierholz said. With better jobs and pay, she said, these workers pay taxes that help support public services.
Tennessee is home to 248,483 foreign-born residents, mostly from Mexico, Honduras and Canada, according to 2008 census data. The state also has a considerable number of immigrants from Europe, other parts of Latin America, Asia and several countries in the Middle East.
Many of them have learned the path to citizenship is difficult to navigate. Michele Waslin, who wrote a fact sheet titled "Why Don't They Just Get in Line?" for the Washington-based Immigration Policy Center, pointed out the U.S. issues 5,000 visas per year to unskilled workers, and getting some type of visa is a first step toward citizenship.
"You can't just go to the post office and fill out the paperwork to become a U.S. citizen, but some people think that you can," she said. "We do have a generous system, but it is also very narrow."
U.S. Department of Homeland Security numbers show that of nearly 13 million legal permanent residents - green card holders - in the U.S. in 2007, about 8 million were eligible for citizenship.
Of those, about 60 percent say they're not fluent enough in English to pass required language, civics and history tests. In 2008, Congress also increased the cost of applying for citizenship from $450 to $675, said Don Kerwin, vice president for programs at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonprofit group that tracks immigration trends and helps craft related policies.
FBI behind schedule
Doski said his problem isn't any of those things.
He was admitted to the United States in 1996 as a refugee of Saddam Hussein's deadly campaigns against the Kurds. He became a legal permanent resident three years later and then, after the required five-year waiting period, applied to become a citizen.
After applicants complete a background check, pass a civics, history and English language exam, and answer any questions examiners may have, the U.S. government is supposed to process a citizenship application within 120 days. Doski said a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration services worker in Memphis told him early on the holdup had been his FBI background check.
That agency cannot provide information about an individual application because of privacy laws, spokeswoman Sharon Scheidhauer said. But the FBI reported that a record-high 35,000-person background check backlog in 2007 was cleared in June.
Late last year, another immigration worker told Doski his application should be completed within six months.
"That is April - the end of April will be six months. So, we'll see," said Doski. "I hope but, if it doesn't happen, I think I will have to get a lawyer to represent me."