Immigrants discuss challenges of coming to the US

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By Amantha Dickman and Sarah Ruff

The year was 1975. There was only one chance for Bao Tram Pham-Chamberlain and her family to get out of Vietnam.

If they were caught it would mean death.

With just enough gas in their borrowed Hercules C-130 airplane to get to Singapore, her family hoped that they wouldn’t be sent back to a country engulfed in a civil war, hoped they would be allowed to continue to America.

After a couple of weeks in jail, and the collapse of Vietnam, there was no real reason for anyone to send them back.

From Vietnam to Guam and on to America, the family settled in Ohio and began the process of becoming citizens.

“I assume that there were tests,” Pham-Chamberlain said. “I know my parents did take the tests and I was kind of grandfathered in because I was under 18. So I became a citizen when they became a citizen.”

At the time, the process of coming to America was a simple one.

However, due to the current political climate, the process is very different now. Immigrants these days face far more barriers when trying to enter the United States.

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According to the Migrant Policy Institute, 7.5 percent of Nebraska’s state population is foreign-born.

According to The American Immigration Council, immigrants make up about 7% of the Nebraska population and workforce.

José García was an American Citizen.

He was born in the United States in 1996, one year after his family had arrived from Mexico City on tourist visas.

García was 3-years-old when his father was flagged for overstaying that visa. Shortly thereafter, the entire family agreed to undergo voluntary deportation to return to Mexico.

His father returned to the US only a year later. The goal was to help the family become more financially stable while they stayed in Mexico.

The family returned to the US when García was 7. His mother briefly returned to Mexico after complications with her visa at the border. Now the family lives, together, in the US.

Now 23-years-old, García is the only documented US citizen in his family. His parents attempted to obtain residential status and were rejected.

“My dad wanted to become a proper US resident, but what ended up happening is the judges closed his case and was like, ‘yeah, it’s whatever. Your children are pretty much old enough that you just need a couple more years working until they’re financially stable, so you can stay in the United States with a valid work permit’,” García said.

His sister is now attempting to gain legal citizenship, after marrying a US citizen. However, García says most people don’t understand how time-consuming the process is.

“They check all your records. They check your vaccination records, check the records from when you entered the country, they check, basically, a lot of bills and stuff just to see the kind of lifestyle you’ve been living,” Garcia said. “They take all of those [things] into account and then they also check your relationships with the person you’re getting married to. They check whether or not your relationship with the US citizen seems legitimate.”

The price of entry

The process is expensive for many.

According to immigration lawyer Josh Snowden, that is because immigration court falls under administrative law, where you don’t have the right to a public defender. Many must pay out of pocket.

When crossing the border illegally — a misdemeanor offense — immigration court provides three options to individuals: expedited removal, voluntary return or the chance to request asylum.

For those seeking asylum, legal fees may add up while waiting to complete the process of applying for a green card. 

Snowden said he knows of siblings who arrived in 1997 who are still waiting for their green cards to process.

Since President Trump took office, more restrictions have been placed on the processes.

In 2017, the Trump administration barred immigrants from entering the US if they were from select countries. More recently, the administration reduced the cap on how many immigrants they would allow into the country.

For Rose Godinez of the Lincoln chapter of the ACLU, these changes have a lasting effect on the ACLU’s national work to help reunite separated families and oppose the policies of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency or ICE.

Now, everyone is up for removal, without even going before a judge, Godinez said. The new system also no longer allows for prosecutorial discretion.

Those whose green cards have been processed can begin the procedure to become a naturalized citizen.

But once again, there are financial and cultural requirements to the process, Godinez said.

The exam includes sections testing the individual’s English skills and historical knowledge. It costs $725. There is a proposal to raise it to $1,170.

For UNL student Ahmed Ahmed and his parents, qualifying to become a naturalized citizen was no easy process. After arriving from Egypt in 2008, his parents had to complete five years of residency and take what he said was basically a civics test.

“They ask you questions like ‘what was the first president’ and just basic American history,” Ahmed said.

After passing the test, his parents were able to get their passports and became naturalized citizens. He and his two younger siblings automatically gained citizenship.

However, not everyone can overcome the barriers that prevent them from becoming a citizen. For college students, the change in the student visa may be a new complication.

Kevin Ruser is a law professor at UNL who directs the Immigration Clinic where law students help people with immigration issues. He said the US may now revoke a student visa if the owner is arrested for a crime, regardless of whether they are charged or not.

Cultural and language barriers cause isolation

Many US immigrants describe a variety of cultural barriers, according to a study done by Decision Research.

They found that many immigrants say their lack of English proficiency prevents them from connecting with others in their new communities. As a result, individuals experience feelings of isolation.

One of the first-mentioned consequences of language barriers for immigrant students is that they often fall behind in US schools. 

In part, this is because non-English speaking students are often not provided the resources necessary to succeed in English speaking classrooms. Children also face feelings of being an outsider when compared to their peers. 

Teachers held Mohamed Musa, 26, back a grade so that he could learn English. 

The majority of his days revolved around trying to learn the language as fast as he could. Making friends was a process that couldn’t rely on conversations.

“The concept of being so strange to people and that being just another thing people can use against you, that was a tough thing for me,” Musa said.

As immigrant children become familiar with American culture quicker than themselves, parents often feel a growing strain on family ties.

According to Decision Research, this is because adults feel that their children are abandoning their culture, leaving a culture clash in the household.

Yousif Ibrahim, 23, remembers arriving in Nebraska and realizing that his cousins did not share his own cultural experiences. 

“When we landed in the United States, my uncle was the one who picked us up and it was snowing,” Ibrahim said. “We went to my cousins, who had lived here their entire lives and I was weirded out that they didn’t speak Arabic.”

This culture clash is normal, according to Professor Marc Garcia of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. 

“Their children who come early in life are raised as Americans and have more of an American experience, which many times causes conflicts between the parents and the children because they are more interested in the culture they are raised in here and not the culture of the country of origin,” Garcia said. 

Spoken language also has long-lasting effects on other aspects of their lives. 

In his study of post-immigration mortality outcomes, Garcia said language barriers have a significant impact on how adult immigrants interact with the health care system. 

While young adults are often in good health, older adults struggle more with the system. When they reach out to health care professionals, many use their younger relatives as translators, leading to miscommunication.

These struggles are especially true for anyone fleeing persecution in their home country. According to a 2010 congressional report on the state of the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program, “many refugees lack a legitimate shot at becoming employed, conversant, and self-sufficient under the current system.

Many immigrants, like Pham-Chamberlain, would like to have a continued conversation about the obstacles they face when entering the US.

“I just think having had the immigration experience, I’m a lot more compassionate towards people who are new in the country or who don’t speak the language, who need help,” Pham-Chamberlain said. “Instead of us/them mentality, I want it to be more of a melting pot mentality — I can learn from you and you can benefit from the opportunities here in America.

“It’s a good, good country to be in.”