Pathways: The road to lawful residency in the U.S.
The topic of immigration has long been controversial in the United States.
In the 1750s, for example, Benjamin Franklin decried the arrival of Germans. Alarmed by street signs written in English and German, he predicted the immigrants would make the U.S. government “precarious.”
With another portion of President Donald Trump's controversial temporary travel ban set to take effect Wednesday, the issue again is at the fore, and everyone from our second cousins to our grandparents seems to have an opinion about it.
But how many of them (and, let’s be honest — how many of us) have spent significant time studying the immigration system that’s in place?
Below, in chapters 1 through 4, you’ll find profiles of immigrants who live and work or study in our communities.
A man from Peru whose knowledge of English helped lift him from a job as a janitor.
A woman who fled El Salvador after gang members kidnapped and murdered her husband.
A native of Rwanda who studied at Connecticut College after spending his early years in a refugee camp in Tanzania.
And an Indian who spent nearly three decades working at Pfizer, right down the road.
Then, you’ll find an overview of the most popular pathways people can take to legally land in the United States.
Skip around as you’d like (you can use the navigation at the right to do so) and let us know in the comments if you learned something new. Let us know, too, if you have any questions related to the topic, or if there’s another issue you’d like us to explore in a similar way. -LB
Marriage: For man from Peru, language is key
I was mad. I had to walk into work in the middle of December and January for a job that I believe paid me $6 an hour.
For 39-year-old Cristiaan Aguilar, everything comes back to language.
The native of Lima, Peru, was just 15 when he first realized its potential. On a tour of northern Peru, he used what little English he knew to serve as a liaison between a Spanish-speaking tour guide and visiting Germans.
It changed the experience for the Germans. And it changed the course of Aguilar’s life.
He learned English. And French. And Italian.
He taught students at the elementary school level. He began teaching adults.
It wasn’t the most prestigious of jobs, Aguilar said. But it was valuable. He felt settled.
Then his father summoned him to the United States. He traveled across Lima to fill out paperwork, get vaccinations, pay fees and get a passport.
In 1998, Aguilar came to the States. He was 21.
“That was very challenging,” Aguilar reflected. “I was almost engaged. I had to disengage. I had to resign from my job. I had to quit school — I was going for management.
“I had to stop and pretty much unplug all of the groups and circles I belonged to.”
Still, Aguilar figured he was in better position than his father, who struggled with English for years. A top salesman at a big corporation in Peru, his father was forced to sweep floors in the United States.
Aguilar was wrong.
His credentials — his fluency, his education, his job experience — meant nothing.
“Nobody would call my references,” Aguilar said. “I had to start over.”
Yet, Aguilar knew the United States held more potential for him than his home country. And many of his family members — not just his dad — were in New London, Waterford and Stonington. So he worked briefly at a bakeshop. Then he took a job attending to the lavatories at Foxwoods Resort Casino.
“I was mad,” Aguilar said. “I had to walk into work in the middle of December and January for a job that I believe paid me $6 an hour.”
The experience, he said, was “humbling,” which might be an understatement. Frustrated, Aguilar at one point saved enough money to return to Peru, but he never did.
For some immigrants, the work was enough. Not for Aguilar.
Aguilar began to excel at his casino job. He paid attention. He asked questions. And when an opportunity came, he seized it.
The year was 1999. A bilingual trainer at Foxwoods called out of work. Aguilar told a supervisor he could fill in.
“I said, ‘If you like what I do, keep me here. If not, I’ll still have a job,’” Aguilar said. “She decided to give it shot.”
He never cleaned floors there again.
Language unlocked Aguilar’s world. He went from Foxwoods to Mohegan Sun to gigs in Rhode Island, California and Washington, always in a supervisory role.
In 2000, he met and fell in love with a U.S. citizen whom he later married. Aided by the extra urgency 9/11 created, he worked toward and succeeded in becoming a lawful permanent resident in 2003.
Aguilar and his first wife divorced in 2006. But after he spent the required five years in the country as a lawful resident, he decided to apply for citizenship. Among other things, he wanted to be able to travel to Europe without having to obtain a visa.
Aguilar became a U.S. citizen in 2011. He was 34.
Spouses of U.S. citizens have one of the fastest paths to permanent residency, as they are able to apply for a visa immediately. Spouses of permanent residents also have a relatively quick route to a green card.
According to the U.S. Department of State's July Visa Bulletin, spouses of permanent residents can get a visa number — a number they need in order to continue on the path to a green card — in about two years' time.
For perspective, the wait for unmarried sons and daughters of citizens is closer to seven years. For siblings, it's anywhere from 13 to 23.
Now, Aguilar is back at Mohegan Sun as a human resources training specialist. He has taught various language courses locally — whether to those in the medical field or those in adult education — and has volunteered at churches doing the same. Just remarried in January, he attended a graduation ceremony at Seattle University last month after getting a master’s degree in adult education and training. His dream is to teach English, but because that requires so many certifications and endorsements in Connecticut, for now he’ll settle for teaching the other languages he knows.
“I know so many people who start (English as a second language) and only keep going till they feel comfortable enough to get by,” Aguilar said.
He wants to show them they can participate on a deeper level — by catching cultural references, for example — by continuing their education, even if they can’t shed their accents.
“If I want to join the conversation, I need to make an effort,” Aguilar said, summing up his philosophy. “The relevance of what you learn determines how successful you are.”
Asylum: Chased out by gangs, El Salvadoran wants to call U.S. home
My husband called and told me to take care of his daughters. He said he wasn’t going to be returning.
The young business owner never wanted to pay the gangs, and at first she didn’t have to.
Back in El Salvador, the 30-something woman — she asked to remain anonymous out of fear for her safety — owned a popular restaurant.
Like many others in her neighborhood, the gang members often stopped by for a quick bite to eat. Like everyone else, they paid their fair share to do so.
Then they began asking for favors.
They’d say they needed help, but she knew they were taking advantage of her.
They wanted meals without paying. They wanted free rides from her husband, a taxi driver. And then they wanted money.
“It’s the fear that made us say yes to their demands,” the woman said through a translator.
In El Salvador, gangs run wild. According to the New York Times, an estimated 60,000 people belong to gangs in El Salvador, which is home to 6.5 million people. The result? The country saw 103 homicides per 100,000 residents in 2015. The United States saw five.
Engaging the men, she said, “was not even worth it in the end.”
The first time her husband put his foot down, the gang responded by taking hostage of the older of their two daughters.
The next time, they took her husband.
The family had negotiated to free the daughter. But there would be no such deal for her husband.
“My husband called and told me to take care of his daughters,” she said. “He said he wasn’t going to be returning.”
The line still open, she heard them take his phone.
Police called the woman on the morning of Nov. 7, 2015 — just more than a day later — to deliver the bad news. She cried as she recalled how he was found: hands tied behind his back, two bullets in his forehead.
On Nov. 10, 2015, after she had hosted a proper funeral for her husband, she packed up her things. It was time to head north.
“I was scared of coming here,” she said, “but more scared of staying there with my daughters.”
The newly widowed mother made the harrowing and costly journey across Guatemala, through Mexico and beyond the Rio Grande, sometimes staying at strangers’ homes along the way. Terrified, she clutched her daughters the whole time.
As instructed, the trio kept walking straight once they passed the river. Straight into Texas. Straight into the arms of immigration officials.
It was Nov. 30, 2015.
“I felt like all my worries slid off into the river I had just crossed,” she said. “I felt safe and that nothing was going to happen to my daughters. But my heart stayed in my country because my husband stayed over there.”
The family briefly stayed in a detention center, where the food was cold and the cell colder. The woman recounted her experience to immigration officials, who deemed her fear of returning home to be credible. Data show that happens with almost 90 percent of the asylum seekers screened by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Asylum Division.
Officials released her to live with her brother-in-law’s family in New York, but not before clasping to her ankle a GPS-enabled monitor. The practice is one that has become increasingly common for asylum seekers over the past few years — and one that comes coupled with random telephone check-ins and surprise drop-ins from immigration officials.
For about five months, she stayed in New York, subject to the bracelet she needed to keep charged at all hours. Then, with the help of members of a New York church, she landed in southeastern Connecticut, where she shed her ankle bracelet in exchange for monthly check-ins with immigration officials in Hartford. Those visits ended in February.
Now the 37-year-old is stuck in limbo, waiting to be assigned the first of what she believes will be three court dates. The final date will decide the fate of her and her daughters, now 16 and 11. Will they be granted asylum and allowed to stay and one day become permanent residents? Or will they be sent home?
The only people who can apply for asylum are those within the United States who meet the definition of a refugee: They can't return home because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution "on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion." With few exceptions, they must apply within a year of arriving in the States. Those who have been convicted of serious crimes are not eligible.
In 2015, U.S. Department of Homeland Security statistics show, almost 1,900 Salvadorans were granted affirmative asylum. The woman, who has been cleaning houses to support her family, longs to follow in their footsteps.
“There are times when I lose faith and feel there’s no hope for me,” she said. “But then I think about it again. Only God knows why I’m here. He chooses what happens to me. I’m just hoping for the best.”
Resettlement: Option allowed Rwanda native to escape refugee camp
Looking at how life was back in the camp, I don’t think I would be able to be where I am today. Because of that, I’m very grateful for the opportunity they gave us.
When Nshimirimana Jacque’s family learned they might have a shot at moving from Tanzania to the United States, elation filled them.
Gone would be the confines of the cramped camp they were forced to move to after 1994, when genocide erupted in Jacque’s native Rwanda and his father was assassinated for ethnicity-related reasons.
In Lukole camp, there was no economic opportunity. The United Nations delivered food every two weeks, but it rarely was enough. The refugees could be killed if they stepped foot outside.
Eager, Jacque and his immediate family began fulfilling the required steps. A young Jacque, about 11, tried to focus on the questions interviewers asked. He hadn’t seen a white person before. And he knew some families had been turned down for discrepancies.
Then they waited. And waited. And waited.
“We kind of started to give up,” Jacque said.
More than two years had passed. Many of their peers had vacated the camp.
“We started questioning, ‘What did we do wrong?’” Jacque said.
In 2009, the time finally came. It was nearly six years after they first learned they were eligible to be resettled in the United States.
Assisted by United Nations officials, they had moved to a new camp, Mtabila, and completed the process — vaccinations, medical examinations, legal paperwork.
According to the U.S. Embassy in Rwanda, the U.S. government has resettled more than 7,000 Rwandan refugees since 2005.
Each year, refugees and asylees are just a fraction of the foreign born who legally enter the country. In 2015, for example, Census data show 1.38 million foreign-born individuals moved to the United States. About 100,000 people additionally were admitted as asylees or refugees.
Prior to their fall 2009 arrival, Jacque said he and his family attended seminars that taught refugees how to go shopping or catch transportation in the United States. The courses sometimes missed the mark.
They acquired air tickets from the U.S. State Department, the cost of which they since have paid back.
Then they arrived in Providence — a place Jacque still calls home — with almost no knowledge of English. For about six months, a caseworker showed them the ropes. Jacque’s mother worked for a cleaning company before moving on to help those with disabilities. He worked to catch up to speed in his school, which he had joined in October.
Already fluent in three languages, including Swahili, Jacque quickly picked up on English, although he called it “really difficult” to learn.
Now 21, Jacque just finished up his senior year at Connecticut College in New London, where he studied economics with the goal of one day becoming a financial analyst. He interned with the Immigration Advocacy and Support Center, too, largely helping people go through the citizenship process.
Then he went through the process himself.
It was around May 2015 when he first saw what he’d need to fill out to become a citizen.
“It was this huge packet,” Jacque said, gesturing. “I was like no, I’m not doing that.”
At 20 pages and with phrases including "title of nobility" and "polygamy," the citizenship application is hard to comprehend at times for non-native English speakers. It’s widely recommended that people seeking citizenship acquire a lawyer to help them through the process — especially when it costs $725 just to apply.
Aware citizenship would open up more job opportunities for him, Jacque had a change of heart. He and his mom found a lawyer at the Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island and filled out their applications.
Last August, he learned his application had been accepted. He’d sit for his final interview in December.
Aided by a cell phone application, he studied the 100 civics questions he could be asked for hours each day. How many amendments does the Constitution have? What is the "rule of law"? How long is a U.S. senator's term?
The interviewer would select 10 questions. He'd have to answer at least six correctly.
When the time came, Jacque passed with ease.
“Looking at how life was back in the camp, I don’t think I would be able to be where I am today” without resettling, Jacque said. “Because of that, I’m very grateful for the opportunity they gave us.”
Jacque plans to head back to Providence later this summer to gain some real-world experience before eventually going back for more education. One day, he hopes to return to his home country and advise people there on money management. For now, he’s happy to help out here.
“There’s this assumption that people come here because they want to exploit the things America has to offer,” Jacque said. “But in reality, they come here because of the circumstances they’re in.”
Work: Man's 28-year career with Pfizer began in India
I left my entire family to come here by myself. I had $800 in my pocket. I had to start from zero.
The makings of Makarand Jawadekar's accomplished 28-year career with Pfizer began in a sizeable city not far from the west coast of India nearly half a century ago.
Armed with a bachelor's degree in pharmacy, Jawadekar, 25 at the time, was eligible for a permanent residency program that would be eliminated just a couple of years later. His was listed as a preferred occupation, which meant he could become a green card holder upon arrival in the United States as long as he cleared extensive medical exams in India.
Jawadekar wanted to work in pharmaceutical research and development. He'd be confined to manufacturing if he stayed.
He applied for the program in 1975 and never looked back.
"This was the best decision I made," Jawadekar said. "I compare it to my classmates who went to school with me back in India and what they could do there. There's no comparison."
In 1976, Jawadekar touched down in the United States, soon to begin working toward a doctorate with a specialization in pharmaceutics at the University of Minnesota. Already a lawful permanent resident, he paid in-state tuition and quickly landed a good-paying job — two things his peers on student visas couldn't claim.
He'd be remiss not to mention the troubles he had adjusting. Comfortable with temperatures between 70 and 90 degrees, Jawadekar in Minneapolis was exposed to wind chill factors well below 0. A lifelong vegetarian, his options in restaurants generally were French fries and cheese sandwiches. Used to having a family chauffeur, Jawadekar had to learn how to drive — from an 18-year-old.
"I left my entire family to come here by myself," he said, referring to his parents and two younger sisters. "I had $800 in my pocket. I had to start from zero."
Still, things fell into place with relative ease for the native Indian, now 66.
On Dec. 8, 1981, he walked across the stage in Minnesota, a successful graduate.
Remarkably, it was the same day he became a U.S. citizen.
"I remember that day very much," Jawadekar said. "The Ph.D. was nothing big. But being a citizen of a foreign country? That was something amazing."
Because Pfizer had visited campus in 1979, Jawadekar already had an interview lined up with the Groton-based research arm of the pharmaceutical company. In early 1982, he signed on full-time.
Now, seven years after his retirement, he can look back on his nearly three-decade career with Pfizer and tick off accomplishments with pride.
He flew to India on a private jet to help establish business relationships. He played a critical role in the formulation development of high-profile drugs including Zoloft. He shook the hands of multiple U.S. presidents.
Over the years, Jawadekar climbed the ranks. When he retired in 2010, he was a director of portfolio management and performance.
Jawadekar, who lives in East Lyme with his wife, hardly sits still in retirement. He serves or has served on the boards of nearly 10 companies. He consults with smaller biotech groups that are looking to hire, bringing his network to them so they can find the best fit.
Lately, he has been involved with the Alliance for U.S.-India Business, too. It’s a gig that recently took him to Washington, D.C., where he met with the vice chairman of the House Budget Committee and offered advice.
“I love doing this,” he said of his post-retirement work, which “comes naturally” to him. “I don’t do for money or fame — just giving.”
In the same spirit, Jawadekar has worked with others in India to help them follow in his footsteps.
Now, Jawadekar is concerned rhetoric in the United States will ruin the diversity he himself benefitted from. In Minnesota, he explained, people from Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh were in the same graduate program he attended — people from whom he learned “quite a bit."
In a February survey of almost 300 international recruitment professionals, 38 percent reported a decline in international applications for the coming academic year. Recruiters said many prospective students were worried President Donald Trump might work to change the parameters of student visas while they’re here, or try to expand the travel ban.
Jawadekar understands the point of view of the students — “You don’t want to go to a country where you don’t know anybody and there could be hostility toward you,” he said.
But he thinks a sustained drop-off would negatively impact the people who live here.
“Unless you talk to the people, be with the people and experience what they have done or can do, you really don’t get exposed,” Jawadekar said. “You’re homogeneous in a way. I think there’s something to be said about that.”
Pathways: Immigration process is complex, everchanging
We’ve all heard it before: “The immigration system is broken.”
But what is it that makes it “broken?”
According to Mike Doyle, founder of the Immigration Advocacy & Support Center, the main issue is it’s too complex.
“Much like the tax code, the Immigration and Nationality Act (of 1965) started out formed well,” Doyle said. “It was fairly orderly.”
But over the years, legislators added pieces and ripped chunks out, all while applying for legal status became more and more expensive.
“Now it’s Frankenstein,” Doyle said.
The process is further convoluted by the fact that immigration officials regularly change the forms that need to be filled out. If a person misses a change and sends in an old form, that’s grounds for his or her application to be denied.
“Should it be complicated? Yes, ” Doyle said. “Should it be this complicated? No.”
Both Republicans and Democrats call for immigration policy reform in their platforms. Republicans want a border wall and stricter limits on refugees and asylees. Democrats support creating a path to citizenship for “law-abiding families who are here.”
President Donald Trump made it clear early in his campaign that the issue was of critical importance to him. He adamantly supported the construction of a 1,900-mile wall — the funding for which has yet to come to fruition. And he crafted an executive order that bans entry to the United States for most people from six Muslim-majority countries. It also closes the door to refugees without a proven “bona fide relationship” in the country.
The two pieces of the order were allowed to go into effect after the Supreme Court announced last month it would review the case in October.
An intricate flowchart maintained by Immigration Road shows just how many paths a person can take to come to the United States legally. Don’t have a job opportunity? Maybe you can come through a family connection. Aren’t eligible for the green card lottery that’s meant to increase diversity? Perhaps you can qualify as an investor.
In 2015, the most recent year for which federal government data is available, 1,051,031 people became lawful permanent residents, or obtained green cards. Another 730,259 became naturalized citizens, while 96,044 more arrived as refugees or were granted asylum. Below we take a look at some of the most common ways they got here.
Family-based: There are a few different ways a person can leverage a family connection to land in the United States, but not all relationships are eligible.
If you’re the spouse, unmarried child under 21, parent or adopted orphan of a U.S. citizen, you immediately can apply for a visa. There’s no limit to how many the government will hand out, either.
If you’re a sibling or a child who doesn’t fit the descriptions above, you’ll be able to apply for a visa eventually, but you’re subject to a quota. For fiscal year 2017, federal data show, 111,800 visas were available for unmarried adult children, married adult children and siblings. More than 3.5 million people were in line for those visas, making for wait times from 7 to 23 years.
Spouses and children of lawful permanent residents also can apply for residency, but face similar quotas. In the 2017 fiscal year, 114,160 visas were available for them. About 700,000 people were in line, with an expected wait of 2 to 11 years.
In all cases, the U.S. citizen or permanent resident must file a petition with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, to start the process. That requires gathering a host of proof, which can include certified copies of birth records, medical records, bank statements and statements from people who can corroborate the relationship.
It costs $420 to file the petition, and thousands more to go through the steps to obtain residency.
Cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews of residents and citizens don’t qualify for family-based immigration.
Employment-based: Work-related visas vary widely in terms of how they’re accomplished and how long they take to obtain. Those who are exceptionally talented — whether their craft is science, sports or playing the piano — can qualify. So, too, can people who have advanced degrees in their field, people who can prove they’re skilled workers or professionals and people who work for religious organizations or the government.
There’s also a path to permanent residency for foreigners who can invest from $500,000 to $1 million to start or transform a business.
In most cases, a person’s prospective place of employment must file for his or her visa in a multi-step process that includes several forms, interviews and security checks. Visas are issued only if the employer can demonstrate that there isn’t a U.S. citizen who could take the job in question.
According to USCIS statistics, 144,047 people gained lawful permanent residency in 2015 after taking an employment-based path.
Diversity lottery: As its name suggests, this lottery exists to increase diversity in the United States. Each year, 50,000 people from countries with historically low rates of immigration are selected to apply for visas. In 2017, natives of about 175 countries could enter the lottery, which is free.
Refugee and asylum: Refugees and asylees meet the same definition: they can’t return home because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution “on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group of political opinion.”
The difference? Those who gain refugee status aren’t yet in the United States. Those who seek asylum are.
In 2015, 26,124 people were granted asylum. Another 69,920 arrived as refugees.
Illegal immigration: Even those who are in the country illegally have a few paths to residency.
If you overstayed a visa, for example, you could marry a citizen or permanent resident and follow a family-based path. You also could apply for asylum, if you qualify, or join the military.
llustrations by Jacinta Meyers.
Graphics by Carlos Virgen.