Swearing-in ceremony

A group takes take the oath to become U.S. citizens at a swearing-in ceremony on Dec. 9, 2019, at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services field office in Salt Lake City.

OGDEN — Immigrating to the United States from Latin America legally is no easy task.

For some, there simply is no sure-fire means to come and work in the country — legally — given the restrictions and particularities of the U.S. immigration system.

"People don't realize how difficult it actually is," said Emily McKenzie, an immigration attorney for Catholic Community Services of Northern Utah, based in Ogden.

For others, applying for residency through U.S.-citizen family members — one of the key mechanisms for many — can be painfully slow, taking years and requiring them to remain in their home countries while the process unfolds. While the process is relatively quick for a U.S. citizen's spouse and young kids, it can take 20-plus years to process the paperwork for their adult children and siblings, if they're from Mexico. In fact, according to a monthly U.S. State Department bulletin, would-be immigrants from Mexico who had applied for U.S. residency through U.S.-citizen siblings in August 1997 were just now, 22-plus years later, seeing their requests approved.

"Could you imagine being separated from your children and possibly grandchildren for all that time?" said Francisco Roman, an Ogden-based immigration attorney. "It's absurd and puts the family units in a permanent state of distress. It's not rocket science as to why people from countries like Mexico... choose to cross the border illegally."

To be sure, the majority of those in Weber County with roots in Mexico and the rest of Latin America are U.S. citizens or otherwise here legally, U.S. Census Bureau figures show. Of Ogden's 85,497 residents, 27,591, or 32.3% of them, are Latinos.

But there are undocumented immigrants. The foreign-born, non-citizen population in the city, which includes undocumented immigrants, legal residents and others, numbers an estimated 7,719, most from Latin America, mainly Mexico. And as the immigration debate simmers, the hurdles immigrants face in trying to come here legally provides another perspective on the issue, aside from the personal profiles offered in this Standard-Examiner series, Meet Your Latino Neighbors.

Sponsorship by employers is another route to immigrate to the United States, McKenzie said, but that process is typically reserved for those with specialized skills and advanced educations. Visa programs allowing immigrants to come here for unskilled seasonal work, meantime, fill up quickly.

"If you don't have that connection through a family member or a job, there's no way to come to the United States," McKenzie said. Or, at the very least, it's very difficult.

Beyond that, the process has gotten tougher under President Donald Trump, Roman said. The Trump administration has made it tougher for those wanting to seek asylum in the United States, including victims of domestic violence, and it's also implemented new restrictions for those already here who are processing through the immigration system. Notably, Trump is pushing to eliminate the Deferred Access for Childhood Arrivals program, which has provided younger undocumented immigrants brought here by their parents a means to stay and work lawfully.

Beyond just establishing legal residency, a key step in the immigration process, becoming a U.S. citizen has its own challenges.

"I think the most important thing for people to understand is that there is no direct way to become a U.S. citizen," Roman said. "You first have to become a legal permanent resident...and after so many years of establishing and proving yourself, then you can apply for citizenship. Each step requires an extensive background check. Nobody is getting a free pass, and no legislation has promoted skipping the legal resident stage."

'THEY CONTRIBUTE GREATLY'

While not delving into the dicier immigration debate, Ogden Mayor Caldwell stressed the import of the large Latino population to Ogden, their contribution to the fabric of the city.

"They're an important part of our community and economy and have been for a long time," he said.

City Councilman Luis Lopez, a naturalized citizen originally from Mexico, echoed that. Latinos hold many of the more labor-intensive jobs here — in construction, agriculture, restaurants and hotels. "It's the same in the whole country. They contribute greatly to our society and community," he said.

Whatever the case, their presence in the labor force doesn't translate into a commensurate presence in leadership posts in Ogden. That, perhaps, is a next step in integrating the Latino population into the larger community, in Lopez's view. To that end, Latinos need to familiarize themselves with the mainstream culture and reach out to it, he said. But the broader community, too, needs to reach out, be open to Latinos taking on leadership positions.

"It is very poor, the representation, and that's something we need to work on," Lopez said.

Contact reporter Tim Vandenack at tvandenack@standard.net, follow him on Twitter at @timvandenack or like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/timvandenackreporter.

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