Becoming a United States citizen is complicated. Immigrants are often faced with many choices in an unpredictable process that can take years, even decades.
In Sioux City, an immigration services nonprofit recently tried to replicate these challenges, by simulating what the citizenship process is like.
On a normal day, Tori Albright works as a world language coordinator in Sioux City. During an immigration simulation at the Mary J. Treglia Community House, she is Jose Fuentes, the 22-year-old son of Myra Fuentes.
Jose is a U.S. citizen. His mother Myra, played by Albright’s colleague Jen Gomez, is an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala who is pursuing legal status. She cannot speak English, so Albright – as Jose – does all the talking at the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala.
They’re told Myra needs to remain in the country for 10 years.
“We stay here?” Tori asks.
“And after that, you can go and start process,” says a Mary Treglia volunteer playing an embassy worker.
Ten years is about 30 minutes in the simulation. They have 1 hour (or 20 years) to become citizens. So Myra and Jose are anxious. Jen Gomez thinks about how Myra must feel.
“It’s frustrating and actually kind of scary because I haven’t been in this country – back in Guatemala – since 1994,” she said. “And now I have to come back and spend 10 years here and I don’t have any ties here anymore.”
They wonder if they should have pursued a different path: stay in the United States undocumented, or buy a fake green card.
“And all I’m sitting here thinking is ‘did we make the right choice?’ Albright said.
After 10 years, Jose and Myra return to the embassy for a green card, which for most immigrants is needed before they can even apply to become a U.S. citizen. This time, they’re told something they didn’t know before: Myra needs a visa, a separate form of authorization, before she can get her green card. An embassy employee asks if she has one.
Albright's tone has a hint of defeat as she says, “No.”
They pay for a visa, but are told to wait four to five months before they can actually receive it.
The simulation finishes before Myra can even get her green card.
Only six of the 30 participants succeeded in becoming U.S. citizens. They swear their allegiance to the country by reciting the Naturalization Oath of Allegiance, then they’re each given a certificate and an American flag.
Michael Nguyen is one of six who achieved citizenship in the simulation. But in real life, that’s something he’s still working towards.
The Canadian-born physician wanted to pursue his career in the United States. He has a green card, and believes he’s met the criteria to apply for citizenship.
But even for a well-educated, skilled worker who speaks English, it’s not easy.
“Because you can make choices that seem easy at the time for application purposes, that two or three years down the road really curtail your ability for what you want or need to do,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen says even the legal path to citizenship is opaque, unfair. He feels the government system is fractured, and that people don’t communicate. And the simulation showed that.
“I found it very frustrating to talk to someone who told me I have to talk to someone else in a different department,” Nguyen said.
The Mary J. Treglia Community House holds this simulation to help people understand the challenges in becoming a U.S. citizen. Executive Director Amy Chabra says parts of it may feel like a game, but there are moments that are very real.
“There’s one part of the simulation where a person who is licensed to practice law makes some mistakes in their paperwork. People laugh, and I think you sit there and realize this stuff happens in real life and it really isn’t funny,” Chabra said.
For Gomez, who played undocumented mother Myra, the experience was eye-opening. In real life, she works with a lot of families whose native language is not English. Some may be undocumented.
Gomez said as a result of this simulation, she’s learned a lot about what it’s like to be in an immigrant’s shoes.
“The most eye-opening thing was the difficult decisions these families have to make,” said Gomez in an interview with Iowa Public Radio a couple of days after the simulation.
She continued, “For example, with my character, in the end, would it have been worth me getting my citizenship? Would I have had to make more sacrifices doing that or more sacrifices remaining undocumented?”
Gomez and Albright talked with each other the day after the simulation. Gomez said they felt the decision they made to have Myra stay in Guatemala for 10 years is an easier decision to make until they’re truly in that situation for real.
“Even if I would’ve gone through the process, I still wasn’t guaranteed re-entry back into the U.S.” Gomez said. “Is that risk great enough, I guess? For families to have to make that decision, I can’t even imagine being in that position in real life.”
Gomez’s character Fuentes was told to stay in Guatemala for 10 years because she accrued something called “unlawful presence” for 22 years, said Erica DeLeon, the director of One Siouxland, an initiative that identifies and coordinates needs for newcomers in the region. "Unlawful presence" means she stayed in the country for longer than she was allowed to.
“When you have more than a year of unlawful presence in the United States, you trigger the 10-year bar,” DeLeon said.
DeLeon helped develop the simulation a few years ago alongside Sister Shirley Fineran, O.S.F., a Briar Cliff University social work professor. She said the hope is that the simulation will make people more open to immigrants they encounter in northwest Iowa and surrounding communities.
In a report released in June 2018 called New Americans in the Siouxland Tri-State Region, immigrants in Plymouth and Woodbury counties in northwest Iowa made up more than 9 percent of its labor force in 2015. They represented about 24 percent of the manufacturing workforce and nearly 21 percent of people in construction jobs.
In 2015, immigrants also made up more than 7 percent of Woodbury and Plymouth counties' combined population. Iowa Public Radio reached out to Iowa Workforce Development for workforce stats for about 14 more counties in northwest Iowa, but did not hear back in time for publication.
The simulation's concept that the Mary Treglia Community House has followed for several years is each participant chooses a folder containing a character based on a real life person. The folder details the character’s situation and different options for how they might go about pursuing citizenship, which they have to weigh alongside how much money they have to start out with.
All cases are meant to show the variety of roadblocks people may encounter, DeLeon said. Some of the profiles people choose are meant to be dead-ends.
The hope, she said, is that the simulation will make people more open to immigrants they encounter in the community.
Chabra with the Mary Treglia Community House said the simulation is just the first step in learning and understanding the complexities of the immigration system.
"I think people who might not know a new immigrant are starting to understand it's pretty complex," Chabra said. "I think our employers are starting to realize, also, the different implications of immigrating into the U.S. and the different problems that their employees are facing."
The simulation was designed to be complex, which is why only a small number of participants were able to attain citizenship, depending on the character they were and how they handled their character’s situation and options.
“If we had made it simple, it’s not real life,” DeLeon said. “It really does have a lot of people giving good advice, bad advice, a lot of long lines you have to wait on.”
On the other hand, DeLeon said, some of the participants had it too easy. She pointed out that one woman paid for what she needed right away, and made it through the simulation in the first 20 to 30 minutes (equivalent to about five years in real life, according to the simulation’s time standards).
“That’s certainly easier than in real life,” DeLeon said.
Though the goal of the simulation is to achieve citizenship, DeLeon said not every immigrant is aiming for that in real life. Many people apply for permanent residency and need to hold onto green cards for the rest of their lives because they cannot meet the citizenship standard.
Besides that, she said, there are many cases that take longer than 20 years – the real life timeframe of the simulation. Those people are the ones who cannot find or do not have a clear path to citizenship in front of them.
“So it will be much, much longer and require immigration reform,” DeLeon said.