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Good Question: How Do Immigrants Become Legal Citizens?

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(credit: CBS) Jason DeRusha
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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – It can be a long process, and it’s far more complicated than most of us realize.

Nearly 700,000 immigrants became legal citizens in 2011, the last year on record. In that year, nearly half of the legal naturalized citizens came from Asian countries, followed by Mexico and the Caribbean, according to the Office of Immigration Statistics.

But according to President Barack Obama, there are approximately 11 million immigrants living illegally in the United States right now.

So what is the path to becoming a legal citizen?

“The first step is obtaining a green card,” said Katie DeGrio Channing, a Twin Cities immigration attorney.

But you can’t just be sitting in Canada or Mexico thinking about how you want to become a citizen. Nor can you be sitting in the U.S. thinking the same thing after living here for 20 years without documentation.

“No absolutely not, you have to have a way, you have to have a path,” said DeGrio Channing.

According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, there are three general paths to getting a green card: family, humanitarian or employment.

If you have a spouse, or a child under the age of 21, or a parent who is a U.S. citizen, you’re in the top priority category.

If you have an adult child who is a U.S. citizen, or you’re the sibling of an adult U.S. citizen, or if you’re a family member of a green card holder, you can apply for a green card.

The humanitarian path is for refugees from war-torn nations.

The employment path is for those who get a job offer here, or fit into special categories of jobs.

But even if you fit in a specific category, there are limits to the number of green cards issued for each one. And there are only certain percentages of green cards allowed to be issued for certain countries.

“There’s a substantial backlog,” said DeGrio Channing, who pointed out that people can wait decades to get a green card, even if they have family here.

“There are substantial risks to applying for citizenship,” she said.

If you do get a green card, there are several things you have to do before you can apply for citizenship. You must be 18-years-old or older, you generally have to live here for five years, and stay out of trouble, and pass U.S. civics and English tests.

“Not everybody has that initial step to get the green card. That’s where our downfall is,” DeGrio Channing said.

That’s why the the president and a bipartisan group of U.S. senators are proposing new paths to citizenship for those who are here illegally.

Both provide a streamlined pathway to citizenship for “dreamers” — young people who were brought into the country illegally as children — who meet certain criteria. Both plans include certain requirements for other undocumented immigrants who want to earn a green card, such as the requirement to learn English.

The president also made an appeal to voters, telling them: “This is not just a debate about policy, it’s about people…who want nothing more than a chance to earn their way into the American story.”

Noting the country’s long history of immigration, the president said the debate shouldn’t be framed as “us versus them.”

“A lot of folks forget that a lot of ‘us’ used to be ‘them,’” he said. “Unless you’re one of the first Americans, a Native American, you came from some place else. Somebody brought you.”

(CBSNews.com contributed to this report)

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