Not Legal Not Leaving

One year ago, Jose Antonio Vargas publicly revealed he's an undocumented immigrant. Now he reports on life in citizenship limbo and how others' 'coming out' can change the debate

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Gian Paul Lozza for TIME

Jose Antonio Vargas

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I am not without contradictions either. I am 31 and have been a working journalist for a decade. I know I can no longer claim to be a detached, objective reporter, at least in the traditional sense. I am part of this evolving story and growing movement. It is personal. Though I have worked hard to approach this issue like any other, I've also found myself drawn to the activists, driven to help tell their story.

This is the time to tell it.

'Why don't you become legal?'

asked 79-year-old William Oglesby of Iowa City, Iowa. It was early December, a few weeks before the Iowa caucuses, and I was attending a Mitt Romney town hall at an animal-feed maker. Romney had just fielded questions from a group of voters, including Oglesby and his wife Sharon, both Republicans. Addressing immigration, Romney said, "For those who have come here illegally, they might have a transition time to allow them to set their affairs in order and then go back home and get in line with everybody else."

"I haven't become legal," I told William, "because there's no way for me to become legal, sir."

Sharon jumped in. "You can't get a green card?"

"No, ma'am," I said. "There's no process for me." Of all the questions I've been asked in the past year, "Why don't you become legal?" is probably the most exasperating. But it speaks to how unfamiliar most Americans are with how the immigration process works.

As Angela M. Kelley, an immigration advocate in Washington, told me, "If you think the American tax code is outdated and complicated, try understanding America's immigration code." The easiest way to become a U.S. citizen is to be born here — doesn't matter who your parents are; you're in. (The main exception is for children of foreign diplomatic officials.) If you were born outside the U.S. and want to come here, the golden ticket is the so-called green card, a document signifying that the U.S. government has granted you permanent-resident status, meaning you're able to live and, more important, work here. Once you have a green card, you're on your way to eventual citizenship — in as little as three years if you marry a U.S. citizen — as long as you don't break the law and you meet other requirements such as paying a fee and passing a civics test.

Obtaining a green card means navigating one of the two principal ways of getting permanent legal status in the U.S.: family or specialized work. To apply for a green card on the basis of family, you need to be a spouse, parent, child or sibling of a citizen. (Green-card holders can petition only for their spouses or unmarried children.) Then it's time to get in line. For green-card seekers, the U.S. has a quota of about 25,000 green cards per country each year. That means Moldova (population: 3.5 million) gets the same number of green cards as Mexico (population: 112 million). The wait time depends on demand. If you're in Mexico, India, the Philippines or another nation with many applicants, expect a wait of years or even decades. (Right now, for example, the U.S. is considering Filipino siblings who applied in January 1989.)

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