Wednesday, April 30, 2008

City Life

Citizenship Status Crushes Immigrant’s 2008 Voting Plans
By Sara Bauknecht

As the 2008 presidential election approaches, numerous men and women across the U.S. are eager to take part in an election that may bring about historic change for America. Mihajlo Spasojevic is one of those people—he values America’s political process and wants to be a part of it.

But for Spasojevic, a 34 year-old immigrant from Serbia, voting next November will likely remain nothing more than a dream. He is one of more than approximately 1.3 million legal permanent residents residing in America who will be forced to sit back and watch as others cast their ballots for the country’s next president. Although he pays taxes and has never committed a felony, his pending status as an American citizen prevents him from having a vote and, therefore, a voice in a country that is rooted in the principles of democracy.

Spasojevic, one of the more than 140,337 Serbian immigrants believed by the US Census Bureau to be living in America, came to New York City in 2002 in search of new career opportunities and a fresh beginning.

Mihajlo Spasojevic
Photo by Marija Vajs

“In Serbia, I achieved more or less everything I could have ever dreamed of accomplishing," Spasojevic said. "So when the opportunity came to move to America, I took it because it was a new challenge for me and a way for me to try to develop my writing career from scratch all over again.”

Upon settling in New York City, Spasojevic took time to explore America, a country he had previously never visited. “Although I had never been to America, moving here wasn’t scary because I had grown up under the influence of American culture. Even though I found some things different in America, nothing was shockingly different,” he said.

Spasojevic also did not find his relationship with his family and friends in Serbia to be too different once he had moved because he had always distanced himself from them due to his introverted personality.

“The transition went very smoothly. But I’m a very introverted, private person. So being separated from my family and friends isn’t as bad for me as it would be for someone who is more connected with the outside world,” Spasojevic said.

In the years following his immigration to the U.S., Spasojevic worked at a photo store and completed his Bachelor of Arts degree in English at Marymount Manhattan College. In 2007, he was accepted into the New York City Teaching Fellows program, which will allow him to begin working on his Masters degree in English Education in September 2008 while teaching creative writing in New York City public schools.

Because of these accomplishments, Spasojevic is pleased with the decision he made over six years ago to migrate to America. “I’m very happy that I came here, and I am becoming more and more happy about it all the time.”

Due to these positive experiences, and the life he has established in America, Spasojevic decided to apply for U.S. citizenship. “Since I want to stay here, I want to be able to be involved in the election process," he said. "As a permanent resident, you can do pretty much everything except vote. So, since I’m paying taxes, I want to be able to help determine how that tax money is spent through having the right to vote.”

When Spasojevic first applied for citizenship in September 2007, he was asked to resubmit his application because of a spelling error in his personal information that occurred during processing. After submitting his information again and waiting the required 45 days to correct such errors, Spasojevic learned that a similar mistake had been made when his information was rerecorded.

“It is definitely a frustrating experience," he said. "No one ever gives you a straight answer about what is going on, and there is always a cloud of mystery around the status of the situation. I’ve tried filing complaints, but I was advised to drop all of them since filing complaints slows down the application process even more.”

Now, almost eight months after Spasojevic first applied for naturalization, his citizenship status is still pending. “These delays don’t affect my daily life too much, but I was very excited to vote since I think this is going to be a crucial election in the future of America and the world. But it doesn’t look like that is going to happen due to the government offices being inefficient with handling immigration matters like mine,” he said.

Delays in obtaining American citizenship, like those that Spasojevic has experienced, are not rare. According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the majority of naturalization applications can typically remain pending anywhere from 14 to 18 months. Furthermore, as the number of immigrants applying for citizenship continues to increase, the average time to become naturalized could grow longer.

In spite of the high volume of naturalization cases that remain pending for extended periods, the USCIS assures immigrants that steps are being taken to make its workforce more efficient. During 2008, USCIS plans to hire 3,000 additional employees to aid in processing citizenship applications, and to quadruple its funding for overtime workers. As a result of these efforts, USCIS Director Emilio Gonzalez, “expect[s] USCIS will have completed 36 percent more naturalization cases than last year without compromising national security or the integrity of the naturalization process.”

With between six million and eight million people expected to apply for American citizenship in the coming years, it is too soon to project whether the USCIS’s plans for improved efficiency will accommodate the needs of the country’s immigrants. “But we can only hope for the best,” said Spasojevic, “and just try to relax.”

No comments: