Perfectly Legal Immigrants, Until They Applied for Citizenship
SELINSGROVE, Pa. — Dr. Pedro Servano always believed that his journey from his native Philippines to the life of a community doctor in Pennsylvania would lead to American citizenship.
But the doctor, who has tended to patients here in the Susquehanna Valley for more than a decade, is instead battling a deportation order along with his wife.
The Servanos are among a growing group of legal immigrants who reach for the prize and permanence of citizenship, only to run afoul of highly technical immigration statutes that carry the severe penalty of expulsion from the country. For the Servanos, the problem has been a legal hitch involving their marital status when they came from the Philippines some 25 years ago.
Largely overlooked in the charged debate over illegal immigration, many of these are long-term legal immigrants in the United States who were confident of success when they applied for naturalization, and would have continued to live here legally had they not sought to become citizens.
As applications for naturalization have surged, overburdened federal examiners, under pressure to make quick decisions and also weed out any security risks, prefer to err on the side of rejection, immigration lawyers and independent researchers said. In 2007, 89,683 applications for naturalization were denied, about 12 percent of those presented.
In the last 12 years, denial rates have been consistently higher than at any time since the 1920s.
Though precise figures are not available, an increasing number of these denials involve immigrants who believed they were in good legal standing, according to lawyers and researchers. Under the law, a number of grounds for naturalization denial can lead to an order of deportation, and appeals are more limited than in criminal cases.
“It’s no wonder there are so many illegal immigrants,” said Brad Darnell, an electrical engineer from Canada living in California who applied for citizenship but is also now fighting deportation. “The legal method is so intolerant and confusing.”
A legal immigrant since 1991, Mr. Darnell is married to an American and has two American-born sons. But after he presented his naturalization application last year, Mr. Darnell discovered that a 10-year-old conviction for domestic violence involving a former girlfriend, even though it had been reduced to a misdemeanor and erased from his public record, made him ineligible to become a citizen — or even to continue living in the United States...
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