LOS ANGELES – 8.8 million lawful permanent residents are eligible to naturalize in the United States, but only 8 percent apply. Of that qualified population, 2.5 million are in California and 800,000 in Los Angeles County alone.
Though naturalization is an ideal goal for most immigrants, obstacles still hinder the process of becoming a US citizen. Among them: cost, language barriers and low access to information.
A roundtable discussion on Thursday, September 3 hosted by New America Media, the New Americans Campaign and several city-based organizations at Los Angeles City Hall emphasized the urgency of getting immigrants to apply, especially with the elections coming up in 2016.
“I can’t even remember when the idea of citizenship has been disparaged in the political forum the way it is being disparaged now…We think, what do we do? How do we respond? What do we say? It is so important that we encourage all of our colleagues, relatives, friends and audiences to take the idea of citizenship seriously,” said Sandy Close, executive director of New America Media.
As Citizenship Day approaches on September 17, community organizations are sustaining a push to increase citizenship application rates in minority immigrant communities by hosting accessible workshops and providing in-language outreach and information.
A main hurdle to citizenship that many immigrants mention is the application fee, which is currently $680.
Nasim Khansari, citizenship project director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Los Angeles (Advancing Justice — LA) said that the cost could potentially rise, but there is advocacy being done to consider a sliding scale based on household income and family size.
“There are immigrants out there that want to become US citizens, but they just don’t have the $680 to be able to do so…,” she said. “That’s a real-life barrier we’re dealing with when it comes to naturalization.”
Khansari gave an example of a Filipino couple (who requested not to be identified by name in this article) ineligible to apply for a fee waiver because their household income is $400 above the government poverty level. The couple has reached out to Advancing Justice — LA for application assistance, but has repeatedly been denied by US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
To apply for a fee waiver, individuals must fill out a I-912 form and meet one of three requirements: a means-tested benefit (i.e. government programs such as food stamps or Medi-Cal); household income is at or below the 150 percent poverty level; or financial hardship that prevents you from paying the filing fee (having to pay for medical expenses, for example).
“Cost is definitely a factor, but I don’t think people should be dissuaded by that,” Linda Lopez, chief of the Office of Immigrant Affairs at the LA Mayor’s Office, said. Lopez said that there are other avenues to seek out assistance, like credit unions that offer microloans to those who do not qualify for the fee waiver.
Another barrier is the lack of awareness within immigrant communities of the process that goes into becoming a citizen.
“A lot of immigrants don’t even know where to begin the process. They don’t know a non-profit organization that offers free or low-cost services even exist, so that’s why we need the media’s help to get these organizations’ names out there to let the community know there are a lot of services providers, particularly in Los Angeles County, coupled with Mayor’s Office, partnering together here to make citizenship as accessible as possible,” Khansari said.
Advancing Justice — LA, which is one of 20 organizations in LA part of the New Americans Campaign, hosts free citizenship clinics at its office in downtown every first three Fridays and the last Saturday of each month.
Lopez cited an initiative by the LA Mayor’s Office to “integrate immigrants local in our civic, political, economic and social fabric” by making citizenship materials available at every city public library branch.
The materials include flyers in English, Spanish, Chinese and Vietnamese, naturalization test brochures, naturalization applications and more. She remarked that there has been an increase in citizenship interest in the city, as the immigration office has been tracking the number of people who go to the libraries for citizenship workshops and the information.
In 2014, 20,000 residents used the resources; it has since doubled this year, Lopez said. Advancing Justice — LA also hosts English as a Second Language (ESL) classes at various libraries for residents who have had their green cards for at least four years.
Despite the common obstacles to naturalization, the benefits of citizenship outweigh them. Naturalized citizens no longer have to fear deportation or circumstances that would cause their legal permanent residence status to be revoked.
Additionally, naturalized citizens tend to experience a nearly 20 percent increase in income. Some studies have shown that naturalized citizens earn more than non-skilled counterparts and are more likely to be employed in high-skilled jobs, which are attractive factors for highly-educated immigrants who seek opportunities at par with those back in their countries of origin.
Alenoush Bidrousian, a newly naturalized citizen originally from Iran, shared at the roundtable that she was motivated by the opportunities given to women in the US, especially when it comes to higher education, jobs and owning a business
“The most important thing as a citizen is that there are more job opportunities, especially government jobs…also being more engaged in the city’s activities and the presidential elections [next year] and I’m looking forward to it. I think it’s our responsibility as a person living in the United States to be more active in any way that [you] can,” Bidrousian said.
More Filipino immigrants should consider the advantages of being a citizen, the Filipino American Service Group, Inc. (FASGI) Executive Director Yey Coronel noted, including the ability to petition family members from the Philippines and bring them to the US faster.
“A lot of Filipinos tend to not apply for food stamps or other welfare benefits because they’re worried that would affect not just their immigration [status], but also their citizenship, so FASGI will be starting another initiative soon to dispel those notions,” she said.
An issue Coronel mentioned is that the vulnerable immigrant communities need to be guarded against the scams that target them. FASGI, which is a community organization that partners with the city of LA to provide English and Tagalog assistance, is trying to be more vigilant when processing applications. A notable scam is notaries or individuals, claiming to be lawyers, who charge too much for application processing.
Business impact of citizenship
In addition to the personal benefits of naturalization, there is said to be an effect on the US work environment.
The National Immigration Forum has launched the New American Workforce to work with businesses who have eligible immigrant employees and assist them with the citizenship process.
According to Laura Barrera, the LA organizer of the New American Workforce, the initiative “engage[s] employers [and] business owners that this is indeed a service to strengthen not only our community, but our workforce.”
Currently, it is operational in eight cities with large populations of legal permanent residents, including Los Angeles, New York City and Miami. The program, which includes information workshops, one-on-one application assistance and civics instruction, is offered on the worksite either during employee breaks, before or after work hours.
“It’s a win-win situation for their workforce to transition from [lawful] permanent residents to citizens. Our project is unique in that it’s helping change a typical conversation in the community to one that will open the doors to employment sites and changes the way human resources looks at the benefits of citizenship. We hope that through this, it will not only change the dialogue…[and] re-educate employers about why citizenship is important,” Barrera said.
In September 2014, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti challenged 25 businesses to partner with the New American Workforce and educate 25,000 legal permanent residents about opportunities that citizenship provides and help them apply.
Through immigrant integration and increasing workplace diversity, business profitability is positively impacted, according to the New American Workforce.
With presidential candidates starting to campaign for 2016, immigration has already become a hot-button issue that has led to many controversial remarks being covered in the news.
Despite the anti-immigrant rhetoric — Donald Trump’s deportation proposal or Jeb Bush’s ‘anchor babies’ comment, for example — eligible immigrants shouldn’t be detracted from applying for citizenship.
“The fact is, immigrants want to become US citizens, regardless of if someone is disparaging them or not. There is already an interest. But we do know that negative politics lead immigrants to be more motivated to get involved,” said Elisa Sequeira, director of national civic engagement programs for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund.
Once immigrants become naturalized, community assistance doesn’t stop there. It’s just “the beginning of a journey of civic participation,” Sequeira said.
Foreign-born citizens are even less likely to register to vote, she said, citing a University of Southern California study by Manuel Pastor and Jared Sanchez. However, the study found these citizens would participate in elections if they do get registered.
“We have an important election year next year and a lot of our new citizens will be participating for the first time in electing the candidates and voting for laws that will affect our everyday life,” she said. NALEO provides civic education for the new citizens regarding voter registration, key issues and laws and political candidates.
Never too late
Another key takeaway from the roundtable discussion was that there is still time for older legal permanent residents to become citizens.
Saul Montoya, who is originally from Mexico, became a citizen in June after 35 years of being a green card holder.
“You are always under the impression that you will go back [to your home country],” Montoya said of why it took him so long to become a citizen, but he was grateful that the US gave him opportunities such as a home, job and security.
He was also motivated by his wife (also a US citizen) who convinced him that he still ran the risk of being deported as a green card holder.
Manok Cha shared that she came to the US from Korea in 1996 after her daughter petitioned her, and obtained legal permanent resident status in 2007.
“Living in a new country, I realized that the United States is a nation that protects the rights of its people and ensures opportunities for its [residents]…Slowly I began thinking about becoming a US citizen,” Cha said, adding that she initially had hesitations about applying because she was not fluent in English, which is among the considerations in the citizenship eligibility interview.
However, with the help of the Korean Resource Center, Cha was able to become a citizen in 2012. Though she was already a senior citizen when she naturalized, she said it’s not too late for older immigrants and noted some benefits that could be afforded to them like housing and government assistance.
Since 2011, the New Americans Campaign and its partner organizations have completed nearly 169,000 naturalization applications for legal permanent residents, and have helped them save $118 million in legal fees and $31 million in USCIS application fees.
Data from the Migrant Policy Institute released back in June revealed that Asians have one of the highest naturalization rates in the country, with 59 percent of the immigrant population becoming citizens.
As of 2013, 1.26 million Filipinos are US naturalized citizens; 43,489 of whom were naturalized that year.