As a first-grader, I distinctly remember a stranger asking my dad to name the current governor of Oregon. We were sitting across the table from a well-dressed stranger who asked a handful of other questions. I remember hearing the names President Ronald Reagan and Gov. Vic Atiyeh,1 but little else.
Shortly after that interview, my parents (and I by association) became naturalized citizens. Their six-year process was a relatively short one. We were lucky. My aunts and uncles remained on a wait list for more than 20 years before coming to the United States. Thousands of individuals and families wait indefinitely for a change in immigration status.
Fast forward some 20 years later, and I would be the one asking the civics questions. In my naturalization class, I quizzed students on civics questions ("What do we call the first ten amendments to the Constitution?") and history questions ("Why did the pilgrims come to America?"). Two specific benefits of naturalization are emphasized through the naturalization test questions: the rights to vote and serve on a jury. The interviewer is not looking for nuance in these answers: no explanations about feelings of being second-class, careers on hold, missed birthdays or families separated.
Over time, the civics questions have changed (applicants no longer need to memorize the names of all 13 original colonies), yet the anxiety of the students as they prepare for the exams has not. Some of my students worked 10-hour shifts before taking multiple buses to get to class. Others studied for years before being scheduled for their naturalization examinations.
While these images are not new, the stories bear repeating, particularly as we prepare for election day this month and a presidential election next year. I am acutely reminded that the civic duty to vote is upon some of us while others wait. Maybe next week. Next month. Next year. Maybe for their children.
A few years ago, one of my naturalization students sought legal advice from a KCBA Neighborhood Legal Clinic in the International District. Naturalization applications had fallen into a significant backlog after a new process involving criminal background checks was instituted due to 9/11. The backlog caused naturalization cases to drag on well past the timeframe provided for under applicable statutes.
A number of attorneys in King County filed pro bono cases in federal court to demand that the federal government take action on naturalization cases within the statutory timeframe. These clients had all passed their naturalization examinations and were waiting for their criminal background checks to be processed. Some waited more than two years from the time they passed the naturalization test to being sworn in as a citizen. One student successfully passed his naturalization test before the historic 2008 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, but could not vote because his background check was not completed until months after the election.
For some of my naturalization students, they saw little distinction between the application process and the litigation. The litigation was just another "step" in the naturalization process and meant yet another request for documentation and credentials. For some, the wait for changes in immigration status or laws can last a lifetime.
In 1902, the Washington Supreme Court denied citizenship for University of Washington School of Law graduate Takuji Yamashita.2 At that time, U.S. citizenship was a requirement for practicing law in Washington. Federal law limited citizenship, "to aliens being free white persons and to aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent."3 The law remained unchanged until 1952, which was too late for Yamashita's admission to the bar. Members of his family, however, were present on March 1, 2001, when Yamashita received posthumous admission to the state bar.
We look back at the justification to exclude Yamashita from citizenship and want to believe that his experience would not be repeated today. Yet immigration is an area of law where divisions based on national origin are permitted and can be or are driven by political will. Immigration policies (and immigration policy reversals) continue to create hardships, be unpredictable, and simply be unfair. Even the best legal strategists struggle to advise on outcomes because some decisions are made by lottery. Yet, families around the world still risk their lives and their families' lives in order to gain economic stability and to be free from human rights abuse.
KCBA addresses these problems in multi-faceted approaches. One need not practice immigration law or even provide direct pro bono representation to help.
KCBA has taken policy positions on immigration issues and provides training for those who have limited experience working on immigration matters. KCBA has worked with the judicial branch to address some unintended consequences that sentencing may have on immigration status.
Multiple Neighborhood Legal Clinics provide immigration advice. Attorneys and others in the legal community can help by serving on committees, providing project management assistance, providing technical support or recruiting KCBA members.
KCBA pro bono attorneys and all of our volunteers demonstrate that the promise of justice should not be tied to ability to pay or ability to vote.
Kim Tran is the president of the King County Bar Association. She is in-house counsel with Microsoft's Global Employment and Migration Law Group. She can be reached at 425-705-7609 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this column are her own and not of her employer, Microsoft.
1 Gov. Vic Atiyeh, Oregon's last Republican governor, was the first elected governor of Arab descent in the United States. Gov. Atiyeh appointed the first woman to the Oregon Supreme Court.
2 See In Re Yamashita, 30 Wn. 234, 70 P.482 (1902). Interestingly, the Pierce County Superior Court had approved Yamashita's naturalization application.
3 Naturalization Act of July 14, 1870 (16 Statutes at Large, 254 at 256, 7).