Wednesday, June 17, 1998

Is It Send "Your Tired, Your Poor" Elsewhere?

CLEARING OUT the basement of my mother's house, I come across a manila envelope. It is labeled "Dokymenty" (documents).
     Inside, there's a plastic-coated diver's license-type card, with a photo of my older sister, at about 9 months old, dressed in a fuzzy jumpsuit with bunny ears. "Resident Alien" is stamped beneath the photo. The document is an alien registration card (the equivalent of today's green card) issued when my family arrived in this country in 1951.
In my family, I will always be the Amerikanka, the one who was born here.
    My parents were expatriates who had to flee their country, Ukraine, during the Communist occupation of their homeland.   It was the landed gentry, the intelligentsia, the religious leaders the Communists targeted. My family was admitted under the Displaced Persons Act after World War II. For my parents, America was a welcoming place. It was not only a place of opportunity, but a place of refuge.
   "Give me your tired, your poor ... Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tossed to me," was inscribed on the Statue of Liberty.
    I come across two other yellowing documents related to my family's' immigration: a typed application with a photo attached,
signaling their intent to stay, filed 17 days after I was born. And there's the final citizenship certificate, a grand document that looks like a cross between an enormous dollar bill and a graduation diploma. Those were the only papers required, and the application procedure was simple. I remember my parents heading downtown and back, pleased that they had the right to vote, which they exercised for the rest of their
   These days, our nation's attitude toward immigrants has changed. They are again viewed with suspicion; their applications are treated with indifference. They have to undergo FBI checks, and because immigration procedures are not clear, they often must turn to lawyers for help. (In fact, a federal appeals court ruled last month that some forms were so obscure and confusing that even the Immigration and Naturalization Service agents who administer them are unable to explain them.)
    There is a backlog of more than 2 million immigrants waiting to become citizens - the largest since the federal government started keeping records at the turn of the century. Processing an application, particularly in large cities, can take as long as five years.
    Congress has allocated funds to automate the system, to hire more workers and expedite the process. But the government's commitment is questionable. After all, new applicants reportedly face an additional one-year delay, because employees have been reassigned to reduce the enormous backlog in citizenship applications.        
   Clearly, America's once-welcoming beacon has dimmed. And its golden doors are being slammed shut.

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