You are right I am not an expert but have family members who are immigrants and many immigrant friends and know what they have experienced. I also have worked for an immigration attorney, which does not make me an expert, but does give me some insight. I gave one example due to time constraints but I could fill a book with others.
Your assumption is that whoever is applying for citizenship already has a “green card” or some other sort of residency. Luis did not. Those who are allowed to be here legally are usually part of a small group of “preferred” applicants — well-educated professionals, typically applying to fill a specific employment position. Their paperwork and fees are usually handled by the employer who wants their services. The immigration attorney I worked for did nothing but file work permit and immigration paperwork for a couple of large corporations. A gardener or cook or any other “non-professional” is not included in the preferred worker group and does not have a corporation to foot the bill for the application process. Others are often political refugees or fall under some other special category.
I said that most don’t know they are undocumented until adulthood. I am including teenagers in that group. Until 9/11, a driver’s license could be obtained with very little paperwork. I did not have to provide a birth certificate when I received a driver’s license for the first time or when I applied for licenses after moving to other states. In fact, I never needed to provide my birth certificate for anything until I applied for a passport in the 1990’s, and then I had to order mine from my state of birth.
And, even if Luis had seen his birth certificate, that only means he wasn’t born here; it does not indicate he is not a citizen of the United States. He knew he wasn’t born here. He didn’t know that he was here illegally.
Luis could not apply for citizenship, no matter how difficult or expensive, because he was illegal. Having an attorney does not mean you will be granted a green card or citizenship. Many people who have been deported had attorneys. Having legal counsel can help, yes, sometimes, but often it merely delays the inevitable. I won’t even get into the subject of unscrupulous attorneys who take large retainers from an undocumented person and provide no services, knowing that the person is desperate, knowing they will be deported and won’t be able to sue for malpractice.
You speak very cavalierly about doing the hard work to get needed legal status. It is easy to say that when you are not the one working 60 or more hours a week or the one who lives hours from the INS office or the one who is less than proficient in English. Many of these people are working minimum wage jobs that barely pay for living expenses, much less high filing fees and attorney services. If they are illegal, they have no license and no car, forcing them to rely on public transportation which is abysmal in most areas outside of large cities. But, again, even if such a person completed the paperwork, hired an attorney, paid all the fees, and made multiple trips to the INS office that does not guarantee anything — not a green card, not citizenship. And, if you are already here illegally, even walking into an INS office could be a ticket back to a country you never knew.
I will give you another example at which you can scoff. My daughter was friends with a girl whose parents had brought her and her older sister to the United States illegally when both girls were under 5 years of age. Another daughter was born here later. All three girls grew up with no idea that they were illegal immigrants. They attended schools, the parents worked; no one asked for any kind of proof of employment or immigration status. The parents divorced. 9/11 happened. For the first time, the mother was asked by her employer of more than 12 years for proof of her work status. When she could provide nothing, she was fired. The only work she could find was in a restaurant kitchen where she was paid cash, under the table, and less than minimum wage. Her church provided food and clothing for her and the girls. The mother talked to an immigration attorney but could not afford his retainer of $5,000. She studied the paperwork he gave her and hoped to find a way to become legal on her own. Someone reported the restaurant for having undocumented workers. She was arrested but released while her case was pending. Her church took up a collection and hired an immigration attorney for her. He was legit and did all he could, but eight months later, she and her daughters were deported to a country the girls never knew; the girls did not even speak Spanish.
I do not appeal to pity; I appeal to compassion, logic, and understanding.