By Jeanne Kuang
April 20, 2016
Elena and Esteban Salgado have been living in the U.S. for over 30 years. This year, they decided, would be the year they vote.
"We want to become citizens so we can vote against Trump," Esteban Salgado, 57, said through a Spanish interpreter.
The River Forest couple, originally from Mexico, have had green cards for 20 years, meaning they've been eligible for citizenship for 15. They've had busy lives: They both work at a Whole Foods Market, and they've raised four children in the U.S.
"We never had a chance to become citizens," Esteban Salgado said.
But this year's election has struck a chord with immigrants. Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump may not be the only reason for rising interest in citizenship, but he's a major one. Trump has frequently lambasted U.S. immigration practices, promising to be strict on borders, deport those who are here illegally and end the use of specialty work visas. He launched his campaign in June accusing Mexican immigrants of being drug dealers, criminals and rapists.
"He's racist, and he speaks very badly about Mexicans," Elena Salgado, 51, said. "It shouldn't be like this. … It is true that there's a lot of people who come here and do bad things but not all people do, and for some who do bad things, the rest of us have to pay."
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About 8.8 million immigrants throughout the U.S. are eligible for citizenship, about 350,000 in Illinois. The Salgados are part of a surge in residents hoping to become naturalized in time for the November election.
And this is crunch time. The naturalization process, from turning in the first application to the final swearing-in ceremony, takes five to six months, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
"We have seen an increase of people trying to vote for the first time," said Dagmara Avelar, a coordinator with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. "What we've been seeing in these intake questionnaires is that there's a definite mention of the anti-immigrant rhetoric (of the election). … They feel an attack on the immigrant community is an attack on them."
The coalition and other Chicago-based immigrant advocacy groups said many permanent residents have come to them asking how to get to the polls. From January to March, the Illinois coalition helped 913 people apply for citizenship, Avelar said.
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From August to January, applications for citizenship throughout the country have increased more than 14 percent compared with the same period a year before, according to the most recent data from Citizenship and Immigration.
Not only are more immigrants seeking citizenship, but unions and advocacy groups are ramping up their outreach efforts as the political climate brings immigration issues to the forefront.
The Supreme Court on Monday heard arguments on President Barack Obama's immigration programs that would benefit parents of U.S. citizens or lawful residents. The programs could aid roughly 4 million people who have been living in the U.S. illegally for years. Twenty-six states with Republicans in control are challenging the proposals.
Illinois' naturalization numbers have fallen in the past five years by about 10 percent. A study from the Center for Migration Studies of New York estimates that nearly 35 percent of eligible Illinois residents are like the Salgados — they've been in the U.S. since 1990 or earlier, and they've long been able to apply for citizenship. Advocates say many residents are put off by the lengthy application process or the $680 fee to apply, face language barriers or have simply never gotten around to it.
The Illinois coalition and affiliated groups, such as SEIU Local 1 and Juntos Podemos, have workshops in the Chicago area to reach those people, connecting hundreds of residents with immigration attorneys to determine eligibility, helping them navigate the naturalization form and assessing qualifications for a fee waiver.
The workshops are an opportunity for advocacy groups to eventually register more voters who are likely to support immigrant-friendly candidates.
"Having presidential candidates using a platform of hate toward specifically Mexicans ... we do realize we have a lot of folks who need to be put on that path toward citizenship," said Idalia Cervantes, a program manager for Chicago's branch of Juntos Podemos, which advocates for Mexicans living in America. "It's the same group of people we'll be using in the 2016 elections to push them to get out and vote."
SEIU organizer Wojtek Gil, who became a citizen in February after coming from Poland 14 years ago, said he is happy that he is eligible to vote this year. Gil's wife is living in the U.S. but is not a citizen.
"The rhetoric (Trump's) using is very much hurting not only me but my family and my immigrant friends," Gil said. "I have a lot of friends who are still undocumented immigrants, afraid to come out of the shadows. I vote for them."
At Holy Trinity Church in Noble Square on a recent Saturday morning, volunteer Graciela Vergara sat across a table from a Polish man wearing a Cubs hat.
The room buzzed with activity as nearly 90 applicants and their families made their way through the workshop. The walls were emblazoned with slogans in different languages — Polish, Spanish, English. Many attended the workshop through their service workers' union, which helped organize the event.
Vergara went down the questions on the 20-page N-400 form. She asked about the man's family, his employment history, his residency status in the country. Then came some of the "more personal" questions, she said. Had he ever been associated with the Communist Party, a totalitarian party or a terrorist organization? Had he ever advocated for the violent overthrow of any government? Had he ever been a habitual drunkard, a prostitute or married to more than one person at the same time?
With the completed form and the fee, the next steps would be an appointment to be fingerprinted for a background check, an in-person interview with Citizen and Immigration that includes a civics test and, if approved, an oath-swearing ceremony.
At another table, Ewelina Kasprzak inquired about her eligibility for a fee waiver.
Kasprzak, 30, immigrated from Poland more than 10 years ago and said she's too busy with her studies to pay attention to the presidential election. But Kasprzak is a student at Northeastern Illinois University, one of the state public schools facing an uncertain future in the state budget crisis.
"I'm worried the school will close," Kasprzak said. "I would like to vote because of the situation with the public schools."
For others, naturalization is the culmination of years of work and not something to be put off.
Avelar, the coalition organizer, became a citizen this month, having come to Chicago from Ecuador nearly 17 years ago at age 12.
Avelar, who grew up in Bolingbrook and later got permanent residency status through her husband, began advocating for immigration reform in college and had the day she became eligible for citizenship marked in her calendar.
"If we're creating these workshops and promoting citizenship we have to lead by example," Avelar said. "It's something I owe to my community."
She was officially naturalized April 7 and said she plans to vote in her first election this fall alongside her husband and his family.
"It was a pivotal moment in the life of an immigrant," Avelar said.
For more information, go to: www.beverlyhillsimmigrationlaw.com