Burton & Poma: What It Means to Be a Citizen during the Pandemic


An American flag (Photo by Justin Prather | Daily Utah Chronicle).

By Sasha Poma, Assistant Opinion Editor


Between the COVID-19 pandemic, the presidential election and the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, the news felt virtually all-encompassing in 2020 — but those weren’t the only things happening. As new and uniquely urgent stories took center stage, immigration, a frequently discussed issue in previous years, was crowded out of the national dialogue. But immigration remains as relevant as ever before. As the world’s businesses and governments adjust to the reality of the pandemic, immigrants hoping to enter the United States face new challenges in obtaining residency, much less citizenship. But even the pandemic and turbulent national politics should not be allowed to impede the naturalization processes of people migrating to the US. COVID-19 has shown us what it truly means to be a citizen as the very people on whose backs the nation rests struggle to acquire citizenship.

US immigration policy is highly complex and bureaucratic. The system is often rightly criticized as tedious and overcomplicated. There is an abundance of policy suggestions for streamlining the immigration process, including giving many more low-skill work visas — which have significantly reduced illegal border crossings — and increasing significantly the amount of legal counsel offered to immigrants in the court system.

COVID-19, unfortunately, has only intensified the system’s flaws. Mass closures of US Citizenship and Immigration Services offices, the temporary suspensions of hearings and biometric screenings and a lack of reliable access to important resources have dissuaded people from obtaining citizenship during the global health crisis. The citizenship process takes about 15 months to complete on average, and these restrictions prolong it further. And if an immigrant applying for citizenship falls ill before their hearing, which is likely given immigrants’ uniquely high exposure to the virus, they have to reschedule because of recovery and safety precautions. These appointments are difficult to schedule enough as it is, and it is often several months before a new appointment can be set.

Because of these hurdles, immigrants in the US have become more hesitant to pursue citizenship —  especially since this past summer, when Trump suspended the administration of visas and green cards. With that kind of uncertainty lingering in the air, it’s understandable that some immigrants are afraid to apply for naturalization. To combat this wariness, we should look to other nations’ current immigration proceedings.

For instance, France has awarded its essential immigrant workers with citizenship. The French government clearly understands how integral immigrants are to its economy and culture. Despite the fact that this is a relatively small movement, it still raises important questions to consider concerning how the US views — not to mention treats — immigrant workers. Even before Trump, the US ranked low on employment-based immigration and permits, even though migrant workers contribute a significant amount of money to taxes, social programs and so on.

One of us has parents who wanted to apply for citizenship in 2020 — by last year, they had held permanent residency in the US for the appropriate amount of time. However, around the time they were going to apply, all of these COVID-19 policies and procedural changes arose. And given the hostility toward immigrants that the Trump administration perpetuated, they felt unsafe going to offices even as some of them reopened post-lockdown.

The argument for immigration expansion goes beyond ethics. Immigrants contribute significantly to the US economy, making up almost 17% of the US Labor force and producing numerous innovations in technology and business, jobs for citizens and output. In 2018, international students alone contributed $45 billion to the US economy. Immigrants, regardless of legal status, also pay taxes to the collective tune of nearly $459 billion per year, but they don’t receive nearly the same access as documented citizens to tax-funded programs like Social Security and Medicaid. They also face caveats that make it harder for them to access the stimulus money Congress has distributed to help industries and households through the pandemic recession.

Given that immigrants are essential to funding our core social programs and growing our economy, it is only just that they enjoy the same financial benefits as other taxpayers. It is a shame that many immigrants are left out of the very programs that should protect them in times of economic difficulty.

Being a citizen of the United States of America means more than being born here, or even having the documentation to prove it. It means having incredible unearned financial and social privileges. On the opposite end of the legal status spectrum, immigrants have to persevere through uniquely compounded hardships, especially because of COVID-19 — and they have inspired us in the process. Many immigrants who work in the medical field have helped save lives during the pandemic — and sometimes gave up their own. Others help their communities as essential workers. The bottom line is that US citizens benefit from our immigrant neighbors’ labor and sacrifices. Now, more than ever, they deserve to be granted citizenship in a nation that relies on them so heavily. Hopefully, in 2021, federal and state leaders will finally offer the policy reform and aid immigrants need and deserve — not only for their exemplary citizenship within our communities but because they are human beings.


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