New York Times
By Miriam Jordan
October 27, 2017
LOS ANGELES — For nearly a decade, Yonis Bernal felt perfectly secure carrying a green card that allowed him to live and work legally in the United States.
Becoming a citizen was not a priority, he said. The need to study for an oral civics test, pay a hefty application fee and miss work to complete the process discouraged Mr. Bernal, a truck driver who left El Salvador in 1990, from applying. Plus, he still felt attached to his home country.
He changed his mind after Donald J. Trump clinched the presidency.
“All this tough talk about immigrants got me thinking I still could be deported,” said Mr. Bernal, 49, a homeowner who is married and the father of two teenagers born in the United States. “You never know.”
Last week, he was among 3,542 immigrants who raised their right hands to take the oath at a naturalization ceremony inside the Los Angeles Convention Center.
In a year when the government has bolstered enforcement, backed curbing legal immigration and rescinded a program that protects undocumented youth from deportation, even a green card is not enough in the eyes of hundreds of thousands of immigrants applying for citizenship to protect themselves from removal and gain the right to vote.
Naturalization applications generally spike during presidential cycles and fall after an election. But this year, the volume of applications is on track to surpass that of 2016, as a perennial backlog continues to pile up. It is the first time in 20 years that applications have not slipped after a presidential election, according to analysis by the National Partnership for New Americans, an immigrant rights coalition of 37 groups. And with an unrelenting stream of hard-line rhetoric and enforcement in the news, as well as a swell of citizenship drives and advocacy, there are no signs the trend is abating.
“The draw of U.S. citizenship becomes more powerful when you have the political and policy environment that you have right now,” said Rosalind Gold, senior policy director at the Naleo Educational Fund, a national bipartisan Latino group.
About 8.8 million people are eligible to become American citizens, meaning they have been lawful permanent residents, or had a green card, for at least five years.
In the first three quarters of the 2017 fiscal year — from Oct. 1, 2016, through June 30, the latest period for which data is available — 783,330 people filed applications, compared with the 725,925 who filed during the same months a year earlier. The current figure is well on pace to surpass the 971,242 who applied in the 2016 fiscal year.
With the surge of applications, the processing backlog has ballooned. There were 708,638 pending applications at the end of June, a steady rise from 522,565 at the end of the 2016 fiscal year and 291,833 in 2010. The average wait time has doubled, to 8.6 months from four months a few years ago, with applicants in cities like Dallas, Houston, Las Vegas and Miami waiting a year or longer.
The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, which processes the applications, said it was enlisting officers to work overtime and seeking to fill vacancies, noting “there is no quick fix” for the delays.
Not all permanent residents aspire to citizenship. Mexicans and Central Americans have lower naturalization rates than Southeast Asians and Russians, many of whom arrived as refugees and cannot return to their countries. The application fee (currently $725), the civics test and concern about losing certain privileges in a country of origin can deter naturalization.
Permanent residency can be revoked, and green card holders can be deported if they are convicted on charges such as aggravated felonies, drug trafficking and crimes of “moral turpitude,” which can be broadly defined. Each time a permanent resident leaves the United States, re-entry is at the discretion of an immigration official.
Citizenship protects immigrants from deportation if they commit a crime, and gives them access to federal benefits and jobs that are restricted to citizens.
Ahead of the presidential election last year, several nonprofits began campaigns to encourage citizenship and guide immigrants through the application process, an effort that has not let up. Many cities, including Miami, Portland and Salt Lake City, have unveiled naturalization drives this year, and adult-education programs have added free citizenship courses for applicants.
On a recent Saturday, the line for a workshop in Houston began forming at 3:30 a.m. Among the 100 attendees were Isidra Moreno, 72, a green card holder for 20 years, and Isabel Sanchez, 28, who has had one since she was a child.
“We immigrants are feeling threatened,” said Ms. Moreno in Spanish. She said she was concerned after watching on the news that laws could change, which she feared would undermine her right to remain in the country with her two American daughters.
Ms. Sanchez said that she decided to naturalize after applying for a job at a call center, only to be told after passing several steps in the interview process that she did not qualify because she was not a citizen. “I walked out in tears,” said Ms. Sanchez, “and Googled how to become a U.S. citizen.”
There have been busy years for naturalization before. In 2007, 1.4 million immigrants applied, propelled by an impending fee hike and enthusiasm for Barack Obama’s candidacy. In 2016, nearly one million applied, and many did not get approved in time to vote. But this year’s increase, coming after a presidential election, underscores the deep and continuing uncertainty gripping immigrant communities.
The electoral implications of the rise in citizenship applications are unclear. In states like California, which leans heavily Democratic, tens of thousands of new citizens, and newly minted voters, will not change the status quo. In other states, like Florida, many new citizens are Cubans and South Americans who tend to support the Republican Party.
Mexicans make up the largest share of green card holders, and Mexican consulates have received a flood of inquiries about the implications of holding dual citizenship.
“We’ve seen anti-immigrant legislation motivate eligible immigrants to naturalize before and now we’re seeing this again at both the state and national level,” said Emily Gelbaum, chief of staff of the National Partnership for New Americans.
A 1994 ballot initiative in California to block undocumented immigrants from certain public services is credited with mobilizing over one million new Latino voters and moving the state to the Democratic column. Hispanic citizenship soared in the aftermath of the measure, Proposition 187.
Texas, where the Legislature recently passed a measure to penalize local governments that do not allow the police to question people about immigration status, has had the biggest jump in naturalization applications in the last year. Senate Bill 4 is currently stuck in the courts.
“In Texas, we’re seeing unprecedented interest in naturalization, including from green card holders who have lived in the state for decades,” Ms. Gelbaum said.
But Latinos in the state, whose voting potential is often characterized as a sleeping giant, have been less politically engaged and less likely to acquire citizenship than Latinos in other states.
“For a half-century we have been waiting for the moment that would galvanize Texas Latinos to seek citizenship, register to vote and storm the polls,” said Cal Jillson, a political-science professor at Southern Methodist University. “Maybe this one will do it. I’m not betting on it.”
In Los Angeles, immigrants streamed into the massive hall for the naturalization ceremony, most of them dressed in formal or festive attire and accompanied by family and friends.
Alejandra Ruiz, 35, who is from Mexico and applied in February, arrived with her two children and American husband, Armando. “I encouraged her to become a citizen because of all the stuff going on with politics,” Mr. Ruiz said. “She was already a resident but it felt like she wasn’t safe.”
Seated in the front row was Catalina Morales, 51, with her daughter, Araceli, 26, an American who serves in the military.
After 30 years as a green card holder, “she felt her residency was at risk,” Araceli Morales said of her Mexican mother. “It was mostly because of Trump.”
Also there was Alma Dominguez, 43, who attended night school twice a week for three months to prepare for the civics test. “Out of all the negativity, something positive is happening,” she said, scanning the crowd of immigrants.
The largest number of new citizens hailed from Mexico, the Philippines and China, but those present had come from more than 120 countries.
“It’s the right time now” to become a citizen, said Mona Wattar from Lebanon, who obtained a green card 10 years ago. Ton Gao, a Chinese immigrant who donned a red polo shirt, blue training paints and white sneakers, said, “I did it for freedom.”
Several rows back sat Mr. Bernal, the truck driver from El Salvador, an American flag tucked in his pocket. Hand over heart, he joined his fellow new citizens for the Pledge of Allegiance to a huge flag that hung from the ceiling.
At the end of the ceremony, he collected his naturalization certificate and headed toward the exit to meet his wife, Eloisa, and children, Janie and Marcell, for a celebratory lunch.
But first he stopped at a voter registration table. “I got everything done,” Mr. Bernal said. “Now I’m going to vote.”
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