LOS ANGELES – More than 8 million immigrants living in the United States have green cards and are eligible for citizenship, yet only 8 percent of these become naturalized citizens.
This is an issue that the New Americans Campaign, a nationwide collaborative working on innovative ways to help green card holders become citizens, aims to target. The road to citizenship in the United States is a long and fruitful journey—with dozens of benefits—that many living within its borders still do not know about.
“For those green card holders waiting to take the critical step of becoming citizens, there’s no better time than now,” said Eric Cohen, executive director of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, one of the leading organizations in the campaign.
Their first strategy in reaching out to immigrants is through the ethnic media. In an hour-long telebriefing conference hosted by New American Media (NAM), a multimedia collaboration of at least 3,000 ethic news organizations around the country, journalists called in to hear about the campaign goals and benefits of citizenship, and to listen to the engaging stories of immigrants who recently became naturalized US citizens.
Sandy Close, the executive director of NAM and host of Wednesday’s press call telebriefing, gave the welcoming remarks and discussed the importance of having campaigns about immigration rights, an issue that is not often voiced.
“In partnership with the National Immigration Forum and the New Americans Campaign, on Wednesday, September 17 is National Citizenship Day, part of a month-long celebration in 17 different cities across the nation. It is the opportunity to celebrate and recognize the value of becoming a US citizen,” Close remarked.
As part of the campaign, NAM traveled to several major cities and hosted ethnic media roundtables talking about the value of citizenship and how to make it more accessible to others. They heard useful information about the application process, along with thousands of compelling stories from immigrants who shared how becoming US citizens has positively impacted their lives.
“The biggest obstacle most immigrants face is the lack of information out there,” said Close, referring to the fears many people have about actually applying and taking the test. “That’s why we are trying to provide resources, useful information, and bridge the gap, through the ethnic media.”
Five speakers were included in the national press teleconference, including a representative from Services Immigrant Rights & Education Network (SIREN), a coalition dedicated to empowering low-income immigrants and refugees through community education in the Bay Area.
Vanessa Sandoval, who has been working with immigrant families through SIREN for years, shared the pluses that come with being a US citizen. These “pluses” are key benefits that many still overlook or take for granted, whether applying or already naturalized.
“Our goal at SIREN and with this campaign is to streamline citizenship and make it more accessible to everybody,” Sandoval said. “Most of the immigrant community is unaware of the resources it has access to.”
For instance, a fee waiver exists for qualifying low-income immigrants who cannot take on the $680 application for citizenship fee.
The English read/write/speak requirement can also be exempted for those with medical disabilities, long-time green card holders, and applicants over 60. If you do not speak fluid English but have had your green card for at least 15 years, you can also take the exam in your native language.
“There are waivers and exemptions, if you meet certain requirements, that people don’t even know about,” Sandoval said.
Other great benefits that come with citizenship include the basic right to vote, the right to travel freely between countries without hassle, and the ability to petition for legal residency for family members. Along with the added benefits, citizens can live freely without fear of deportation.
The tele-conference continued with live stories from four different female immigrants who had applied for naturalization, taken the test, and were recently sworn in as citizens. The women, all varying in age, told compelling accounts of their experience with the citizenship process and how they were able to obtain resources from organizations like New Americans Campaign.
“Thousands are afraid of deportation and living in fear. The peace of mind that comes from knowing you are safe is priceless,” said Guadalupe Guerrero, 25, a new citizen from Mexico who applied for naturalization after 10 years and was able to get her bachelor’s degree. “[Becoming a US citizen] gives you a sense of pride for living in a country you can now call home.”
The International Services Center (ISC) helped Zoreh Ravani, an immigrant originally from Iran, find freedom in the US by explaining her rights and giving helpful information about the process.
“The best part is that I can freely practice the religion I want, which I would not have been able to do in my country!” Ravani gushed.
A 78-year-old Vietnamese American, Thanh Bui, was diagnosed with liver cancer soon after arriving from Vietnam in 2005.
“Had I not been a citizen, I wouldn’t have the Medicare and Medicaid benefits that helped me get through the stages of my cancer,” she humbly acknowledged. “Now, I am able to have specialists who have shrunk my tumor to about half its regular size.”
Bui also shared her experience failing the citizenship exam twice, before taking classes to help her study and pass her test.
“I didn’t want to give up; I knew that becoming a US citizen was important because of the freedoms and securities promised,” she said. “Now, my life has been extremely less stressful, very happy, and relaxed. I am appreciative to the government for giving an elderly person the opportunity to live life.”
The New Americans Campaign celebration will continue for a month starting on National Citizenship Day on Sept. 17, with a full month of free naturalization assistance workshops, education programs, partnership-building, and providing legal help to LPRs looking to start the application process.
The campaign will prove the point that American citizenship can change lives, rebuild families/communities, and make a profound effect on both American and ethnic media.
(With reports from New Americans Campaign and New American Media.)
(Las Vegas September 11-17, 2014 Sec. A pg.4)