CLAREMONT — For many local immigrants and naturalized American citizens, the subject of immigration can be a sensitive discussion, particularly when such conversations are politically-driven.

According to several Claremont residents with firsthand experience of the United States immigration system, the “legal path” to citizenship is far more complicated and cumbersome than most Americans seem to realize.

In interviews with the Eagle Times, these residents — who include recently naturalized citizens, immigrants in the process of citizenship or spouses of immigrants — agreed that America’s immigration system, based on their experiences, would arguably be too overwhelming for immigrants to navigate without money, education or assistance.

“It is definitely a ‘pay-to-play’ system,” said Chiara Tosi-Nelson, of Claremont. “If people who complain about illegal immigration really want to fix the system, the number one step should be to address what is not working in the legal limmigration process.”

Tosi-Nelson, who co-owns Claremont Spice and Dry Goods with her husband, Ben Nelson, is an amply qualified candidate to receive United States citizenship. A native of Italy, she married Nelson, a U.S. citizen, in 2017 and has owned a home and a business in Claremont since January 2020. She has followed the legal process throughout her residency in the United States, dating back to 2014 when she worked at Dartmouth College as an Italian language specialist.

In 2017, in the county a second time under a Fiance Visa, Tosi-Nelson married her husband within the 90-day visa requirement.

“That’s when things started going downhill, very fast,” Tosi-Nelson said.

Many Americans, Tosi-Nelson said, mistakenly believe that marrying a United States citizen eases the obstacles for a non-citizen. In reality the non-citizen spouse must secure and maintain an active green card until eligible to apply for full citizenship.

But in 2017, soon after Tosi-Nelson submitted her application for her first green card, came a sequence of unfortunate events that would dramatically slow down operations in the U.S. Department of Immigration. First, newly elected U.S. President Donald Trump administered a series of crackdowns on the county’s immigration process, including the elimination of a number of visa programs.

“The eliminated visas included the [exchange program] visa that brought me here in the first place,” Tosi-Nelson said.

Importantly, the revenues these programs provided through their application fees were a major funding source to the Department of Immigration’s operating budget, according to Tosi-Nelson.

Second, in December 2018 the federal government shutdown for 35 days, the longest recorded shutdown in the government’s history.

Third, in 2020 the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic struck.

During a large period of 2017-2018, Tosi-Nelson, whose green card application was stuck in a cue for federal review, was “in limbo,” she said. She was not legally allowed to work. She could not leave the country to visit her family and friends, or else she would be unable to reenter the United States. She also was not allowed to apply for government benefits or acquire an independent medical insurance policy.

“Everyone told me the process would be smooth sailing for me,” Tosi-Nelson said. “Yet I found myself having to choose between not having my Italian wedding [scheduled in the summer of 2018] or going to the wedding but not being able to return.”

With assistance from the office of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT), Tosi-Nelson acquired an emergency authorization to expedite her application’s review.

But two years later Tosi-Nelson faces the same problem again. Her two-year green card is set to expire and her application for a 10-year green card remains backlogged again by the Department of Immigration. The department sent her an explanation last year about the delay and gave her an 18-month extension, but that extension is slated to expire in January 2022. Meanwhile Tosi-Nelson, looking at the status of her application online on Monday, saw that her application likely will not get reviewed for another two to three years.

Additionally Tosi-Nelson says she cannot apply for full citizenship, despite now being eligible, because she may not have the necessary legal green card status to proceed.

“It’s not anyone’s fault,” Tosi-Nelson said. “But people here should care about bankrolling these departments that enable people to enjoy their way of life, whether that is getting produce from farms that rely on seasonal workers or getting a native Italian speaker to help students needing language assistance.

An expensive, painful process

Ninoska Lovett, a Claremont resident and friend of Tosi-Nelson’s, can similarly attest to the hurdles of America’s immigration system. Lovett, married to Claremont School Board representative Rob Lovett, has lived in the United States since age 11, after moving with her family from Ecuador to seek better opportunities.

Lovett, like Tosi-Nelson, was well-qualified for citizenship consideration when she formally began the process as an adult. Her husband’s family helped to pay for an immigration lawyer, who helped the couple with the initial process, including the application to receive a green card. As with Tosi-Nelson’s situation, the first green card is only valid for two years.

But when time came to refile for a green card extension, around 2012, the couple went without a lawyer’s help due to the cost.

“It was incredibly easy [back then] to mess up the process, because the website was not as straightforward as you would think and there’s not anyone listed to contact for help,” Lovett explained.

On the first attempt to refile, Lovett applied using the wrong form.

It was a costly mistake, Lovett said, because the couple was not reimbursed the application fee, which had cost somewhere between $500 and $1,000, she recalled.

After reapplying Lovett prepared for a trip to Ecuador to visit her parents, who returned to Ecuador shortly after Lovett’s wedding. Not having her new green card, Lovett brought all her documents to U.S. immigration officials, who assured Lovett that these documents would enable her to re-enter the country after her visit.

But that was not the case, Lovett said. Prior to Lovett’s return trip, officials told Lovett that she would be denied entry into the United States once arriving at her destination. Lovett and her one-year-old son, instead of a two-week visit in Ecuador, had to remain in Ecuador for over two months, while Lovett’s husband, stil in the states, worked frantically to bring his family home.

“It was so difficult that we were looking into options for me to move down there,” Rob Lovett said.

Rob Lovett said it took the help of two lawyers, a judge and a U.S. senator to finally allow Ninoska to return.

“And it was only because my son was a U.S. citizen that the process was expedited,” Rob Lovett said.

Ninoska Lovett has been a naturalized U.S. citizen since 2015. Lovett said the test itself consisted of a civics test, where an interview randomly selects five questions from a total of 30; and a demonstration of the candidate’s ability to speak and write using basic English.

Resources not included

Felicia Brych-Dalke, a Claremont resident and Canadian native, said she had already established permanent residency in the United States by the time she decided to apply for citizenship.

Brych-Dalke found the process “excellent” and relatively fast-moving, particularly in New Hampshire, beginning the online application in January 2017 and completing the face-to-face interview just five months later.

But Brych-Dalke also acknowledged benefitting greatly from resources provided through her employers, Cisco Systems, a multinational technology conglomerate headquartered in San Jose, California. Cisco, who employs remote workers from around the world, brought Brych-Dalke to San Jose as an IT network manager in 1999.

Cisco retains a number of immigration lawyers to assist its workers with visas and green cards, and handling issues on the employee’s behalf, Brych-Dalke explained.

“It was such a different experience for me because of that”, Brych-Dalke said.

Brych-Dalke said the 2016 elections drove her decision to pursue U.S. citizenship status, to become more democratically involved in the country’s direction.

In speaking about America’s immigration system, the Lovetts and Tosi-Nelson said they are more concerned about people who lack the money, education and assistance to navigate the system.

“We had no shortage of resources and it still took thousands of dollars and years,” Rob Lovett said.

“If you don’t have the money or resources, you are going to have a bad time of it,” Tosi-Nelson said.

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These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative as part of our race and equity project. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.

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