KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- For thousands of immigrants all over the world, the American dream is a chance at a better life.
But it's a dream that's creating a nightmare at the border.
Immigration agents predict more than one million immigrants will try to cross the border from Mexico into the United States this year alone. That's a record-breaking number.
The number of immigrants taking the oath to become new American citizens is also breaking records.
And many of those new citizens have very strong opinions about the crisis at the border and people trying to jump the system.
It's a system Ramon Valdez said is broken.
"The fact that the immigration court system is structured the way that it is, is one of the reasons there has been havoc in the space," Valdez said. "And it keeps immigrants from accessing justice because they are inherently in this process that is unfair, these obstacles that are very unreasonable."
They're not unreasonable for Catalina Toborda though.
'The right way'
She was one of 91 new Americans from 36 countries recently sworn in at a naturalization ceremony at the Kansas City, Kan., federal courthouse.
"I'm a citizen," Torboda said. "I can travel. I can be responsible. I can vote. It's amazing."
She's a new American's with a definitive opinion.
"It's nice because they're doing it the right way because, you know, they're paying taxes for supporting the United States," Toborda said.
The Colombian immigrant had a work visa and paid taxes for 14 years before she applied for citizenship.
"So you know what? Do it the right way. If you don't do it the right way, don't come here."
She's not the only immigrant who wants to see others play by the rules.
At Johnson County Community College, FOX4 was there when 402 people from 69 countries recently took the oath to become new citizens.
There, Yurielvuis Alonso and his wife shared the same sentiments as Toborda.
"We can embrace everybody by the law, so do it the right way," Alonso said. "Do it the right way."
Natalie Contreras and her husband did. The couple escaped a communist government in Cuba where most live in poverty.
Together, they pledged their allegiance to the United States during another naturalization ceremony at Johnson County Community College.
Like other immigrants who have become citizens, they want to see prospective Americans follow the process.
"We paid the fee that immigration asked for, so I think it is fair," Contreras said. "I think everybody can be welcomed to this country the right way."
But Valdez argued, for many it's difficult to do it the right way.
A constant shift
The path to citizenship isn't an easy one.
Valdez said changes in the immigration court system have made the process a mess, especially in recent years.
"They're stacking hearings on top of each other," he said. "Folks are getting rescheduled out for years, so there is this giant backlog that's growing with the immigration courts."
Applications are backed up as much as 20 months, he said.
Valdez is feeling the effects of that backlog and the record number of immigrants at the border.
He works with lawyers representing immigrants on a pro-bono basis, sometimes a thousand cases at a time.
"There is also this constant shifting of the laws and how they apply to people seeking asylum at the border or people detained by immigration, which is also creating a lot of mess," he said, "especially at the border as these policies come and go and lawsuits that come and go."
It's a mess created, in part, because the country's border facilities aren't equipped to process and house the thousands of men, women and children coming to the southern border.
Many of those immigrants might not qualify for asylum but aren't sent back right away.
Other times, the right way isn't enough -- even when there's a federal order saying you can stay.
'They didn't care'
Leticia Stegall was deported back to Mexico with no warning. Her family calls it an unlawful deportation.
"We were not done with the court system," her husband said.
The co-owner of KC's Blue Line Hockey Bar was deported within a week of being taken into custody, despite a federal order blocking her deportation, leaving her husband and daughter behind.
"She had a work permit and a Social Security card, and we pretty much thought she was good to go," Steve Stegall said. "We were going through the process, taking it through the court system, when they came and got her."
Leticia came to the United States 20 years ago and overstayed her visa, so she was here illegally.
But she was working with lawyers to become a citizen.
Her family admits she had one run-in with the law in 2012 when she was arrested for driving under the influence and had to spend 30 days in a Kansas jail.
They believe that was a red flag in her case -- but it wasn't until February 2018 when immigration officials did something about it.
"Leaving home, that's when I got arrested," Leticia said. "So I asked the guy 'So what are you doing?' I am married to a citizen. I have a daughter. I have this paperwork -- they didn't care. They arrested me in my driveway."
With the help of lawyers, her family got a federal judge to block the deportation.
"We had the block from that federal judge on their desk by 4 o’clock," Steve said. "She called me at 9 that she was at the border."
Steve said he thinks they just ignored the order.
"If we would have exhausted the court system and they would have denied her in the 8th District Court, we would have flew her back with all the stuff that she needed," Steve said. "Instead she went back shackled up from feet to waist to hands on a con air, con airplane. None of that had to happen."
Now, Leticia manages the family River Marker bar from Mexico with the help of security cameras and her laptop.
"It's just not the same without her here," Steve said.
Leticia and her husband have spent thousands working on her case to reunite their family.
That's how it's been for over a year and how it will likely be for at least another year.
"Just day by day, you just wait for the day to get over," he said. "Every month that starts, another month down."
"People need a way to be protected so that their lives aren't put in danger, that they aren't sent back to places where they might be killed," Valdez said.
Leticia's two-year wait in Mexico to become a citizen is what Valdez considers one of the unreasonable obstacles he faces with his clients.
"I think right now with the rhetoric and the disconnect that we have politically right here in the US, there's this idea that those against immigration are the Americans," he said. "I think I personally approach it as 'America can do better. We deserve much better than we are doing.'"
Valdez said many people at the border are seeking asylum for humanitarian reasons.
But they can also have a family member petition for a visa, which he said could take years.
Of course, an employer can sponsor a work visa, he said.
Those are the three main ways someone goes about legally entering or staying in the United States.
"There's an uptick of denials against asylum cases across the country," Valdez said. "Kansas City has actually been increasing."
According to Valdez, the Kansas City area's average was about 60% denial rate, but one immigration judge is denying upward of 89% asylum cases now.
"With those facts, we're concerned for a lot of cases that we have whether or not they'll be able to gain asylum," he said.
Valdez believes the answer is an independent immigration court system. That would also guarantee legal representation for immigrants at the border, eliminating the backlog of cases, which puts many lives on hold.
"From the bottom of my heart," he said, "I really think we can and should lead the human rights and just be the beaming light the United States has always been."
Passing the test
One of the many steps to becoming a legal United States citizen is passing the naturalization test, made up of civics and history questions.
Could you pass the test? Test your knowledge on this sample test all immigrants must pass to become American citizens.
Congress on immigration
FOX4 reached out to nine local Congressional leaders from Kansas and Missouri to get their position on immigration and the border crisis. Four of them responded to our questions.
Customs and Border Protection response
FOX4 reached out to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Patrol for an interview. ICE did not respond to our request.
A CBP spokesperson said no one in the department was available for an interview. That spokesperson did, however, direct us to the agency's online newsroom for the latest border security statistics, information and statements.
You can also access transcripts of news conferences, calls and hearings at the following links:
- Call with former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen about status of border
- CBP media briefing on fiscal year 2019 migration statistics
- Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on oversight of CBP response to smuggling of persons at the southern border