Family Struggles Down a Rocky Road to American Citizenship
When we hear the word immigration, many of us think of people climbing over fences in Texas or Arizona in the dark of night, border patrols and a political hot potato that seems to come into focus during election years.
For Priya Poehner, immigration has been both a personal opportunity and an incredibly frustrating challenge.
I first met Mrs. Poehner when my daughter was assigned to her third grade classroom at Park Forest Elementary school. Her warm smile and enthusiastic teaching style was the perfect match for our excited eight-year-old.
At the time, several classes at Park Forest were identified as "looped" classrooms. The purpose behind looping was that a teacher who had the same group of students two years in a row would be able to jump right in on the second year; relationships and expectations were already established. Mrs. Poehner became a great friend to our family.
In the course of those two years, we learned a lot about Mrs. Poehner. We learned that Priya bravely came to the United States from India in 1994, on her own, as a college freshman, to attend the University of Northern Kentucky. She met Matt, the American who would become her husband, on the first day of college in her first class.
She double majored in education and special education. Together, she and Matt came to Penn State to complete graduate school. At the time our daughter was in Mrs. Poehner's classroom, Matt was working on his doctorate and Priya was attending graduate school around her teaching schedule. Eventually, her parents, Keith and Madhu Gammon, and brother, Aju came to the United States as well.
My kids still talk about the night that the whole family came to our house for dinner - Priya, Matt, Madhu in her beautiful sari, Keith and Aju. Keith brought out his guitar after dinner and they sang for us around the table. As part of the two percent of the population of India who are Christian, they shared stories of their mission work. We learned that Keith had been a surgeon in India, and Madhu, a dermatologist. Their plan was to come to America and build a life near their daughter and to seek support for Aju (also called Charlie) who has developmental disabilities.
We've stayed in touch. Matt is now an Assistant Professor in World Languages Education at Penn State. Priya went on to finish her doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction. After the birth of their daughter Bella, who at eight is now the age of my then third grader, Priya accepted a faculty position in the Elementary and Middle Level Education program at Lock Haven University. Their son Leo is almost three. They are the typical American family – kids, carpools, juggling work and after school activities, and a busy family life. Priya proudly became a United States citizen in 2005. She considers the United States and State College to be her home.
For Keith and Madhu, and especially for Aju, the path to citizenship has not been as easy.
The process of becoming a citizen for someone over the age of 18, generally involves a minimum of five years uninterrupted permanent residence in the United States (with a "green card"). Applicants who have either served in the US military or who are employed in the United States, and particularly those who are married to United States citizens, seem to have a clearer path.
The applicant completes an extensive application and interview process that evaluates not only years in residence but also demands moral character, a clean legal record, an understanding of United States civics laws and includes a test. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) estimates that applications take approximately 16-18 months to be processed.
As a citizen, Priya immediately set out to sponsor her parents and her brother for citizenship. Although unable to practice medicine in the United States because of differences in professional credentialing, Keith and Madhu have both been working, tax-paying citizens with green cards since arriving here in 2001. Madhu has worked in a variety of positions, most recently with children in an after school program. Keith works with a medical group as a physician support professional. Madhu's application and citizenship process went fairly easily and she was granted citizenship not long after Priya received her approval. Keith is still waiting. His application has been lost in the system so long they are considering reapplication, this time with his wife as the sponsor.
The real concern is Aju. As an adult with developmental disabilities and a limited ability to work, his application process has been a nightmare. Like all adolescents with learning disabilities in the United States, as a dependent of a person with a green card, he was eligible for special education programs through to his 21st birthday. Unfortunately, without his own green card, he has been ineligible for any programs or services in the ten years since. As an adult who is dependent and without a work history, his application falls smack dab in the out-of-the-ordinary category. Add to that the fact that the Poehners moved from one house in State College to another during the waiting period – the United States Postal Service and USCIS apparently don't communicate - and Aju ends up in citizenship limbo.
For Priya, trying to access the system to advocate for her brother is like pushing a boulder. Two years ago, they received an email indicating that Aju's application was pending. Last year, they learned that USCIS closed his file. Desperate calls to Congressman Thompson's and Senator Corman's offices haven't helped; they were encouraged to get an immigration attorney. Because of the delays, Aju sits all day in his parent's home in New Jersey, relying on his family and friends from their church for any activities or socialization and without the opportunity for vocational training and an eventual job. Although he is covered under his father's health insurance plan, medical issues for Aju are a nightmare because he is ineligible for the support available to adults in our country with disabilities.
The Poehners and the Gammons worry about what will happen to Aju. They fear that a return to India, where the services for people with disabilities are decades behind those available in the United States, would not only put his health at risk but break up their family and leave him without support from his sister when his parents are no longer able to care for him. "We think about it all the time" said Priya when I talked to her last week. "His family is here. The services are better here. Unfortunately, he has no legal standing here."
Their only hope is to start the re-application process all over again with Madhu as the sponsor this go around. After waiting nine years, they are hoping that this time he will be approved.
If there are readers who have ideas on how to get through this system, the family is eager for suggestions.
As an American and as a person who has advocated for people with disabilities throughout my career, I hope that this is just one of those bureaucratic snafus for which our government is famous and Aju isn't being blocked from citizenship because of his special needs. His family -- American citizens -- are here, working hard and contributing to our society. To deny him citizenship seems inhumane -- and decidedly un-American.
Immigration isn't always about climbing over a fence in the middle of the night. It can be about the effort to follow the rules and the application process that is in place and a family rooted in their community.
It shouldn't be about bureaucracy.