Amid CAA, NRC row, a look at how rest of the world gives citizenship to immigrants

While the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019, makes it easier for certain religious groups in three Muslim countries to secure Indian citizenship, other major countries including America and Britain are making it increasingly tough for any foreigner to gain citizenship.

And even when these countries finally grant citizenship, it will be only after ensuring that the beneficiary has satisfactorily imbibed their laws, customs, values, culture and language. Britain, America, Australia, Canada and many countries ambitious Indians prefer to live in have tests and interviews to assess loyalty.

Those seeking citizenship in Switzerland should even be ready to perform military service. In Australia and Switzerland, applicants are asked to demonstrate how they have integrated into the local community.

Throbbing beneath all the laborious and complicated procedures related to citizenship in these countries, the heart-beat of their process, is one simple question: What can you do for our country?

When US and UK opened doors

Over a decade ago, getting an American or British permanent residency (PR), and later citizenship, were relatively easy. Arun, who is now a defence journalist in America, secured it without sweat, almost like he had won a lottery. So had Ravi, now a top software analyst in Britain.

Arun and Ravi got lucky because the countries they migrated to – American and Britain – were then too eager to meet certain specific needs.

In 2006, America was short of nurses. “We received our Green Card, which gives one the status of a permanent resident, on arrival,” said Arun whose wife Uma was the vice principal in a leading nursing college in Bangalore when they shifted to the US.

It can take years, more than five from the date of application in many cases, to get a Green Card. The waiting period is usually longer for people attempting to immigrate from countries such as China, Mexico, India, and the Philippines, as the demand is huge.

“When we got here, nurses were in high demand. Dangling the Green Card on arrival, for the nurse and whole family, was how the US got many nurses from other countries. The shortage is no longer there, and Green Cards are no longer available on arrival for nurses,” Arun said.

It was around the same time, in 2006, that Ravi decided to move to England. The country was in need of highly skilled software professionals and Ravi who had worked with global giants like Intel perfectly fit the bill.

His work visa came under the HSMP (Highly Skilled Migrant Program). It was not a hassle for him and his wife Sudha, now a security analyst, to get a work visa. After five years they applied for Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR) or permanent residency, which they got in a trice, and after a year they applied for citizenship, which too was given without delay.

But once their need was met, Britain did away with the HSMP visa in 2008. Like America, which now has enough nurses, the UK too has enough highly-skilled professionals in various fields. This has now made them infuriatingly choosy.

Britain ends mass immigration

The work visa that has replaced HSMP has a tougher points-based system. Now an Indian wanting a Tier-1 work visa, besides being young and fluent in English, has to be highly qualified and should be earning quite heavily.

Only those holding such Tier-1 visas can hope to even apply for ILR or permanent residency. Earlier, before Theresa May became home secretary in 2010 under David Cameron, even those holding Tier-2 visas (given to Indian professionals when their parent Indian companies transferred them to their UK offices) could apply for ILR status after five years.

Rule is, a foreigner has to stay in England for five years to apply for ILR status. Theresa May decided that Tier-2 visas needed to be given only for three years. Result: the foreign professional cannot dream of a British passport and has to mandatorily move back to their home country after three years.

Great British wall

Writer and academic Chindu Sreedharan, unlike Ravi, felt unwanted in Britain for quite long. “I found it a lot more difficult than others who come on work visas, or on spouse visas. I had to go through the 10-year 'long residence' route, rather than the five-year route that normally people take. This was mainly because of a series of changes in regulations that Theresa May brought in, and meant a series of visa extensions before I qualified (even with a PhD and a full-time job at university),” said Chindu, principal academic at Bournemouth University, UK.

Things got progressively difficult, especially for South Asians, with the UK government tightening regulations around 2007. “They also scrapped a provision that allowed a two-year window for students who had graduated from UK universities to stay back and seek employment a few years after that. And raised the minimum earning capacity that a person needed to qualify for a work visa. All of this meant that even those who were highly educated, for instance even someone with a PhD) could barely meet the requirements and there was a lot of uncertainty,” Chindu said.

American dream turns sour

If Arun and his wife Uma managed to time their shift to America quite perfectly, to coincide with America's need for nurses, software analyst Surya Ramprakash timed hers to coincide with the emergence of Donald Trump.

Surya is among the first batch of people who had applied for a Green Card after Trump came to power. Being a highly skilled worker she comes under the EB1 visa category and should have got the card in three years. But there is still no sign of her getting the card any time soon.

“We are supposed to get it in three years, and I have passed all the stages of vetting. Truth is, no time frame is written down anywhere,” Surya said.

She said American citizenship rules change according to the country's needs. If in 2006 it was nurses, there was a huge demand for Artificial Intelligence experts in 2008 under Barack Obama. “He relaxed rules and EB1 visa holders were given a Green Card in six months,” she said and added: “Now, under Trump, what was granted in six months takes three years. Now it looks like it will take even more.”

If EB-1 visa holders are so uncertain, the prospects of EB-2 (advanced degree holders) are EB-3 visa holders (degree holders) are better left unsaid under the Trump regime. The shortest wait is for EB-1 category or the “extraordinarily skilled immigrants”. At the most, immigrants like Surya will have to wait for six years.

EB3 immigrants it is said will have to wait for 17 years to get a Green Card. At the current rate at which Green Cards are granted, the EB-2 category, because they make up the largest number of immigrants, will have to wait for over 150 years.

“And during this lifelong wait, even a small traffic violation is enough to get your application rejected. Our social media handles are also constantly monitored for any anti-American activity,” Surya said. Even if it is assumed that the immigrant finally gets the Green Card, she will still have to wait for another five years to apply for citizenship.

Migrant hero Trudeau

Countries like Canada and Australia are no different. Citizenship is strictly need-based. “In 1999 when I applied, citizenship by naturalization was based on a skill and a need-based points system. Doctors did not qualify as there are sufficient doctors in Canada. I was accepted as a researcher with knowledge in medical statistics. It is much the same situation now,” said Dr Parameswaran Nair, a professor of Medicine at McMaster University and the first recipient of the Frederick E Hargreave Teva Innovation Chair in Airway Diseases.

In Canada, too, one has to be a permanent resident first. “Then, you have to wait at least four years. Thus, it could take up to 5-6 years. This is not unreasonable. It could take up to 8-10 years in England, and even longer in Switzerland,” Dr Nair said. (An immigrant in India will have to be a permanent resident for at least 11 years before she applies for citizenship.)

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had recently sprung a surprise when he made it easy for foreigners to settle in Alberto, a Canadian province with huge oil reserves. Some even hailed him a migrant hero.

Rather than a migrant-friendly move, this was a convenient way to boost Canada's productivity. When no locals were willing to work in the difficult conditions of Alberto's oil wells, Trudeau knew that desperate foreigners will take up the job at perhaps half the cost.

Swiss neighbour's envy

In Switzerland, it is not just enough for the Switzerland government to approve the citizenship. It has to be seconded by the local authorities, called cantons.

“Trying for citizenship in Switzerland is an exercise that could unsettle your mind,” said Rajasekhar, a banking consultant, who had failed to secure one. “There is no central rule but each of its 26 cantons have different rules for citizenship. Some insist on a written test and others on just an interview. The fee also differs. Some cantons require you to live for two years and some others insist that you have to be a permanent resident for even up to 10 years,” he said.

And the hardest part, he said was the approval of neighbours. “For most cantons, what your neighbours think about you is the most important input. Even the most friendliest of neighbours could put in a bad word and that could be the end,” Rajasekhar said.

British advantage

In all these countries, an immigrant can vote only if she is a citizen. Not in Britain. Anyone from the Commonwealth countries, including India, can vote even if she is in the country on a student visa.

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