The other side of the immigration debate


Millions of undocumented immigrants are facing possible deportation. Some have proposed building a wall. States are threatening to close their borders to refugees.

Amid the current divisive immigration rhetoric it’s important that we not forget another story: the nearly 9 million green card holders living lawfully in the U.S. who are eligible to become citizens, and the milestones reached in the past year to help them do just that.

One year ago the president announced his executive action on immigration and one part of his order on which we have seen progress is citizenship. Today, substantial strides are helping to address the barriers to citizenship.

A year ago, the president launched the White House Task Force on New Americans to ensure that eligible lawful permanent residents (LPRs) have the tools and support they need to apply for citizenship. The Task Force has listened to the suggestions of the immigrant-serving community on ways to integrate immigrants civically, economically and linguistically.

We know that lack of understanding of the naturalization process and eligibility requirements are significant barriers to achieving citizenship. That is why the immigrant rights community has called on the government to share information about naturalization proactively with eligible residents. This year the White House announced its “Stand Stronger” citizenship awareness campaign. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) launched a 10-state Citizenship Public Education and Awareness Media Campaign. Both efforts aim to encourage LPRs to take the next step and naturalize.

The high cost of citizenship is another barrier. At $680, the application fee often prices people out of becoming citizens. As USCIS has been reviewing options for those who cannot afford the fee, immigrant advocates can now point to the White House Task Force on New Americans’ directive to increase the rate of naturalization. This year, USCIS began accepting credit cards as a form of payment, hoping to make citizenship more accessible.

The important contributions of immigrants to our country is why I’m proud to lead a nationwide campaign to increase citizenship called the New Americans Campaign, which believes in the power of innovation, collaboration and technology to transform the journey to citizenship.

The New Americans Campaign comprises more than 100 partner organizations in 18 cities that partner with municipal governments, promote “Citizenship Corners” in public libraries and encourage volunteerism, all of which the U.S. government counts among its top citizenship-focused priorities.

Since the launch of the New Americans Campaign in 2011, we have helped more than 180,000 aspiring new Americans complete their citizenship applications and save more than $161 million in legal fees by accessing USICS resources and free or low-cost services from our partners.

It is essential for our elected leaders and others to reach out to eligible aspiring Americans and advocate for improved access as a key element of immigration reform.  The achievements in the past year prove that citizenship is an increasingly important part of the immigration conversation.

Let’s not forget this aspect of immigration. Let’s continue to encourage the 8.8 million citizenship-eligible green-card holders to become citizens. When new Americans gain the rights, freedoms and responsibilities of citizenship, it only strengthens the vibrancy of our communities and nation.

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This op-ed originally ran in The Hill. Eric Cohen is the executive director of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in San Francisco, which leads the New Americans Campaign, a nationwide network that promotes immigrant integration through citizenship. The ILRC is a national non-profit resource center that advances immigrant rights.

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