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Understanding how the government works: The Executive and Judicial Branches

The president of the United States serves as the Executive branch of government.

Given the attention the are given by the worldwide media, the president of the United States is the part of the federal government immigrants are likely the most familiar with.

As U.S Citizen and Immigration Services indicates, the president of the U.S. is in charge of the Executive branch of the government. In short, while the Legislature is charged with making laws, the Executive carries out the laws, or "executes" them. It sees to it that laws are enforced.

But the president is tasked with a variety of other duties as well, as the responsibilities that come with the office are considerable. For instance, the president establishes the policies the country will adhere to, proposes laws to Congress, makes appointments to various government positions and is also in charge of the armed forces. This is where the term "Commander in Chief" comes from.

Just as senators and representatives are elected to office, the president is voted by the American people as well. However, unlike legislators, presidents serve four years and are eligible to run for a second term. However, unlike legislators, presidents can only run for two terms. Congressional members can run for office as many times as they would like, provided they have the votes.

The last part of the federal government is the Judicial Branch. This is the portion of government that interprets the law. In other words, the judicial branch reviews laws to make sure that they are accurate and do not conflict with the tenets of the U.S. Constitution.

While the Legislature is composed of one body and the Executive is personified by the president, the Judicial branch is made up of a nine-person body. This group is called the Supreme Court and the people in the body are called "justices."

Throughout the year, these justices review laws that are proposed at the federal or state level and determine whether the laws uphold or conflict with the U.S. Constitution. Lawyers present the arguments for and against the law and justices determine whether to uphold or overrule a law by voting.

Unlike congressional members and the president, Supreme Court justices are appointed to their positions by the president. The Legislature – namely, the Senate – then votes on whether to confirm or deny the president's appointment. If the justice is confirmed, they serve on the court for the rest of their lives but can resign if they so choose.

This brief history of how the government works may help immigrants establish a better knowledge of the country they send money from – the United States of America.

Helpful links:

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
The White House
The U.S. Supreme Court – Inside the White House


Understanding how the government works: The Legislative Branch

Before immigrants go to the ballot box, they may want to learn about how the federal government works.

While finding a job in order to be able to send money back home is typically the most important factor in many immigrants' lives, once they establish themselves, it's natural for them to pursue other interests.

One of these may be government, as it's not uncommon for immigrants to get involved in politics by learning more about current events and what role people have in swaying public policy.

But before immigrants jump into the political fray, it may be in their interest to learn more about how the federal government works. To help, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services put together a primer that can help them learn about some of the fundamental tenets of the American governmental system.

At a basic level, the federal government is composed of three separate and distinct bodies or branches: Legislative, Executive and Judicial.

The Legislative branch is charged with the responsibility of making laws and is composed of an assemblage of spokespeople who are voted into office by their constituents. These spokespeople are called representatives and senators.

Within the Legislative branch are two smaller bodies that compose the whole: The U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Both housed in the same building – the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., – the House of Representatives has 435 members, all of whom "represent" their individual states and districts. The more people a state has in terms of population, the more representatives they have. For instance, Delaware – a state with a low population – has one representative, while the heavily populated state of California has 53.

Each representative serves for a period of two years but they can run for re-election when their term has expired.

The other body of Congress is the U.S. Senate. This congressional body is composed of 100 senators, and unlike the House, each state has two senators, no matter how large or small the state may be.

Also unlike the House, senators serve for a period of six years but they too can run for re-election.

While both bodies make laws for the nation, each has duties that are exclusive to them. For instance, as the USCIS documents, only the House of Representatives can introduce laws about taxes. Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate is the only body that can agree to agreements the president makes with other countries. They are also the only body that can approve appointments made by the president to various departments within the government.

Helpful links:

U.S. House of Representatives
U.S. Senate
Welcome to the U.S.A. – History and Government


To renew or to naturalize? That is the question

Some things to consider before deciding whether to naturalize or renew a permanent residency card.

When immigrants are hard at work in an effort to send money home to their loved ones, they may suddenly realize that this is the year their permanent residency cards expires. But before immigrants take the steps necessary to renew, immigration and legal experts say it may be in their' best interest to think about their status and whether it's worth their while to naturalize.

In a special for the Hagatna Guam News, attorney Catherine Bejerana Camacho offered a few pieces of advice immigrants should consider that will help them make a more informed decision.

For starters, before immigrants can even think about naturalization, they should first make sure they qualify. For instance, if permanent residents have only been in the U.S. for two years, they're not eligible to fill out a naturalization application.

However, there are some instances in which immigrants are obligated to fill out a naturalization application. This includes those who have a 10-year permanent resident card that will expire this year. If immigrants don't get this taken care of, they may be prevented from traveling by customs enforcement officers, the source indicates.

Something else immigrants should take under advisement is if there are any conditions in which remaining a permanent citizen is in their best interest. For example, Camacho offers the example of someone who may have filed a petition on behalf of their son or daughter who's living in another country to become a resident in the U.S. By filling out the necessary paperwork to become a citizen, Camacho says they could affect their child's visa category, which could potentially lead to problems down the road, such as a visa taking longer.

Another reason why immigrants may want to renew their permanent residency rather than naturalizing is if they have business interests in their home country. By becoming a legal citizen of the U.S., they may jeopardize their ownership back home, according to Camacho.

Finally, Camacho reminds immigrants to make sure they had any run-ins with the law, as criminal records will likely hurt their chances of their naturalization application being approved.

If all of these scenarios check out, immigration experts say naturalization is typically better than staying a permanent resident. However, individual circumstances vary, which is why Camacho recommends immigrants consult with an expert before deciding.

Helpful links:

Immigrant Legal Resource Center – Citizenship and Naturalization
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services – Application for Naturalization
N-400 Document Checklist


5 things you should know when renting your first apartment in the U.S.

Other things to consider when seeking out an apartment.

While finding an apartment and filling out the necessary paperwork to apply are significant aspects of the apartment-hunting process, there are several other aspects immigrants need to do before they can even think about moving in. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration reviews what these are.

1. Sign a Lease to Protect Your Rights – Assuming that all the paperwork checks out and the landlord agrees to rent out the property, the next thing immigrants will have to do is sign an agreement, or what's referred to as a lease. This is a document that outlines the terms in which the tenant that's renting the property agrees to and also lays out the commitments of the landlord.

2. Repairs, Term, and Responsibilities – By signing a lease, tenants agree to keep the home in good shape, pay their rent in a timely fashion and stay in the unit for a particular period of time. The length is usually a year, but it's not uncommon for rent agreements to be shorter. In return, the landlord agrees to do their part, such as making sure repairs are taken care of and ensuring the property is in good working order, the source indicates.

3. Paying a Security Deposit - Once both sides sign the lease, tenants may then be asked to pay a security deposit. These are fees that landlords charge to tenants right before they move in to their units. Basically, a security deposit ensures the landlord will be compensated should they experience losses due to the tenant, such as paying for damage or as a way to pay for rent that the tenant may have neglected to pay. Security deposits are typically equal to one-month's rent, the source indicates.

4. Getting Your Security Deposit Back - While security deposits may be an additional expense immigrants were not aware of, this money is typically returned to to tenants whenever they decide to move out. However, the landlord may decide not to reimburse the tenant if they had to pay for repairs that resulted from the occupant's tenancy.

5. What Expenses are Covered – Finally, while rent usually covers the cost of living in the apartment, it sometimes includes expenses for other things. Rent may include the cost of utilities, such as gas, electricity, heat, water and trash removal. However, some landlords may require that the tenant pay for these expenses separately. To find out, USCIS advises immigrants to ask their landlord about what rent includes before signing an agreement.

Finding a place to live is a crucial part of immigrants' experience in the U.S. It will help give them the peace of mind they may need so they can work and send money home to their families.

Helpful links:

Department of Housing and Urban Development: Fair Housing – It's Your Right
HUD's Public Housing Program Apartment-hunting Guide


The steps involved in finding and renting an apartment

How the apartment hunting process works.

When immigrants come to the United States, they know that one of their first priorities is to find a job so that they can send money to their families. As important as this may be, however, it may be even more vital to find a place that they can come home to.

Immigrants are likely well aware that the state of housing in the U.S. isn't as healthy as it has been in the past, with many property values losing their value. Perhaps as a result of few people buying homes, there's been an increase in the number of people renting properties, such as condominiums and apartment units.

While immigrants may have a goal of eventually a buying a home of their own, they're typically in financial situations more conducive for renting. However, given immigrants' newness to the country, they may be unsure of what they need to do to begin the process.

To help, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services offers a few tips.

The best way to find a place is simply by looking around. When driving or walking in an area, there will likely be signs saying "Apartment Available" or "For Rent." Immigrants who are apartment hunting may also want to peruse their newspapers under the "Classified" section, as this part of a newspaper has the contact information for people who are renting out residences. Other ways the source advises immigrants of finding a place to live includes asking friends who they may work with or checking the internet. If consistent web access isn't available, public libraries typically have computers with internet accessibility offered to local residents.

The next part of the rental process is meeting with the building's landlord. As the USCIS indicates, "landlords" are the people that own the building that's being rented out.

In the process of speaking to the landlord about the unit, they will likely ask that a rental application be filled out. This is so the landlord knows what the immigrant's background is and if they have a steady job to pay for the property. These forms require that the immigrant fill in pertinent information, such as their Social Security number, name and proof of employment. Establishing proof may involve listing the contact information for their company's boss or attaching a pay stub to the application.

Helpful links:

Welcome to the United States: A Guide for New Immigrants
Department of Housing and Urban Development
NYC Affordable Housing Resource Center


The benefits of U.S. citizenship

It's much easier to obtain a passport as a U.S. citizen rather than as a legal resident.

When immigrants have gone through the process of becoming legal residents of the U.S., it’s quite the achievement. It takes a great deal of determination and resolve to satisfy all the requirements. Therefore, once it’s achieved, it’s understandable why so many start devoting all of their attention to finding a job so they can send money to those they love back home.

But it may be in immigrants’ best interest to take their legal residency in the U.S. an additional step by applying for citizenship.

According to immigration lawyers, there are a variety of reasons why going the extra mile for citizenship pays off. One of the biggest ones is the latitude it gives immigrants. For instance, should they want to travel or live abroad for a certain period of time, they’re perfectly free to do that as a citizen. As a legal resident, however, they’re not subject to the same standard. For instance, once legal resident immigrants return to the U.S. after travelling, they have to present a variety of documents that indicate they have a legal right to live in the country, such as by presenting their passport as well as their green card.

Another benefit of citizenship is the legal right to vote in federal and local elections. They can also run for office and be awarded grants that are only offered to U.S. citizens. Permanent residents have no such rights and can be denied from participating in elections or applying for some grants and scholarships.

While immigrants often come to the United States so they can provide for their families who still live in their home country, feelings of homesickness may lead to them to want their spouse or child to move to the U.S. As a citizen, immigrants have the ability to file a petition for their loved ones to come to the U.S. and live there permanently as legal immigrants. The process is considerably easier for citizens compared to residents.

But perhaps the best reason to become a U.S. citizen is the security it provides. As a citizen, immigrants cannot be removed or deported from the country for virtually any reason. The only way this may happen is if it’s discovered that the immigrant falsified statements and/or documents in order to obtain a green card.

These are just a few of the perks that come with U.S. citizenship. For more information on how to apply, click here.


The fundamental rights of legal U.S. residents

As a U.S. resident, immigrants have fundamental rights and privileges.

When immigrants come to the United States for remittance purposes, they know that as an American resident, they have many rights and privileges that they may not have had in their home country. This includes the right to work and earn an honest living.

But immigrants may not be familiar with other rights that they have, ones that enable them to live in the U.S. with the knowledge that they can't be removed from their new country. However, whether it's due to inaccurate paperwork or misunderstandings, customs enforcement officers occasionally seek out immigrants who they believe did not enter the country legally.

A fundamental right all Americans have, including immigrants, is the protection of unreasonable searches by authorities. According to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers have entered immigrants' homes without obtaining a warrant from a judge. While these cases have been relatively infrequent, they have still occurred.

ILRC says that immigrants can show that they know their rights through something called a "Red Card." The ILRC developed these red plastic cards – which are written with instructions on how immigrants can exercise their rights in both Spanish and English – so that immigrants can understand what rights they have.

Typically, any confusion that results in customs officials coming to an immigrants place of residence can be cleared up simply by presenting the documents that prove one's residency. However, ILRC says that immigrants are under no obligation to present anything if they first do not show that they have a legal right to be there. The only way they can obtain this is through the court system, wherein a judge will grant a search warrant. The judge will not issue the warrant without probable cause.

If immigrants gain official citizenship, they earn many other rights. According to the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, this includes the ability to vote in all federal and state elections, the ability to bring family members to the United States, to travel anywhere in the world with a U.S. passport, the opportunity to run for elected office and become eligible for federal grants or scholarships. Taking advantage of these rights will enable immigrants to better assimilate themselves and reconfirm their status as an American citizen.


What to do when confronted with an emergency

What to do in the event of an emergency.

When immigrants start their jobs, they may find that their days and weeks will become pretty routine. They'll wake up in the morning, head to work so they can wire money to their loved ones, then head back to their apartments so they can relax and get ready for the next day. However, occasionally, immigrants may find themselves in situations that stray from the norm, as they may be called upon to help someone who needs medical attention.

To help immigrants understand how they should respond to these emergency situations, U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services offers a few recommendations.

In the U.S., when residents encounter a problem that medical professionals should know about, they should call a telephone number: 911. While the situations vary, this number should be called to report a fire, a crime that's in progress or any suspicious activities that may be life-threatening.

Once the number is dialed, USCIS says the person on the other end of the line should answer the phone within seconds.

Typically, the first words they say will be "This is 911. What's your emergency?" It's at this time that immigrants should provide as much detailed information as possible about what the nature of the problem is, which includes what was seen or heard and where the incident took place. If immigrants have a difficult time speaking English, they should tell the operator what their native language is. An officer who speaks the immigrant's language should then come to the phone, according to USCIS.

Because the nature of the problem may be serious, it's natural to be shaken up when detailing the situation. USCIS says 911 operators are highly-trained officers and should be able to help them calm down. Immigrants should be sure to stay on the line with the operator until all their questions about the situation have been addressed.

While 911 is a convenient service that can help U.S. residents get help quickly, it's not a number that should be dialed for anything other than life-threatening situations. For example, USCIS says 911 is not to be used to obtain driving directions, to ask information about public services, or to talk about anything that does not require immediate action.

By adhering to these general rules for emergencies, immigrants may wind up saving someone's life.

Helpful links:


What to look for to avoid scam artists

Immigrants need to be wary of the companies they deal with, as scam artists may try and take advantage of them if they're not careful.

Typically the first thing on an immigrant's mind when they come to the United States is earning a living so that they can send money home to their families. However, in immigrants' haste to start making money quickly, they should pursue their endeavors with caution, as they may happen upon scam artists looking to prey upon unsuspecting victims.

To help immigrants discern what are legitimate operations and what may be fraudulent ones, U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services offers a few pointers.

Because scammers know that the USCIS is the governing body that grants visas, green cards and employment authorization documents, some claim that by filing with them, immigrants can avoid the fees and wait periods they may encounter with the government entity. USCIS says immigrants should be very wary of these claims, as they are generally untrue.

While some scammers encourage immigrants to avoid the USCIS, others claim to be the USCIS by offering official-looking documents and web pages. A good indication the immigration service provider in question is fraudulent is if they offer downloadable forms and instructions for a price. USCIS says all forms it offers are free to download and have detailed information on filing fees and processing times.

Another way scam artists try to fool immigrants is by claiming they are government agencies that were once in operation but are no longer. For instance, the Immigration and Naturalization Service used to be the government body that oversaw immigration policies and benefits. But that body was dissolved in March 2003. The USCIS was put in its place, which is governed by the Department of Homeland Security. The INS was under the Department of Justice.

Therefore, if websites or purported immigration service providers claims to be the INS – or refer immigrants to them – it's a good bet they're scammers.

Fortunately, every state in the U.S. has resources immigrants can turn to if they've been victimized by a scam. These can be found here.

The Better Business Bureau is another organization immigrants can turn to for reporting a scam or to determining whether a business is legitimate. Immigrants can familiarize themselves with the site by visiting here.

Helpful links:

Better Business Bureau – Reporting scams

U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services – Avoiding scams


What are my responsibilities as a permanent resident of the United States?

Some of the rights and responsibilities that come with being an American citizen.

Once you have obtained permanent residency in the U.S., you may think making an honest living so you can send money to your loved ones back home is your only responsibility.  But as U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services indicates, permanent resident duties go beyond that.

One of these chief responsibilities as a permanent resident is filing tax returns. Under current immigration laws, permanent residents who fail to file tax returns with the Internal Revenue Service, as well as with states in which they've made money, may be forced to abandon their status as a permanent resident.

If you are unclear about how the tax filing process works you can review the IRS' website for a primer.

Another task you should be sure to get done is to obtain a Social Security number. A Social Security number basically identifies residents and recognizes they're able to work in the U.S. These numbers are nine-digits long and are chiefly necessary for employment and tax filing purposes. For more information about Social Security, the SSA's website may prove useful.

Selective Service is something you should familiarize yourself with as well. This is a system the government uses to determine how many individuals would be able to serve in the military if a draft were ever to be initiated. This is also called military conscription, which basically compels someone to serve in the armed forces, although it hasn't been used in decades.

There are some exceptions to having to do this, however. Permanent residents who are male and between the ages of 18 and 26 are the only ones who must register with the Selective Service.

For more information about the Selective Service System – including specific details about immigrants – click here.

These are just a few of the responsibilities you should take care now that you're in the United States. But there are a variety of others to be aware of, many of which are rights and privileges that are guaranteed to residents. The USCIS has developed a manual that chronicles these entitlements in "Welcome to the United States: A Guide for New Immigrants."

Helpful links:

Welcome to the United States: A Guide for New Immigrants