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A Different Side of the Immigration Debate

Why don’t more immigrants become citizens?

The struggle to immigrate doesn’t end with a green card. This op-ed looks at barriers preventing millions of eligible immigrants from becoming American citizens.

Millions of immigrants want to become a part of the American story. Much of the debate about our immigration system has concerned undocumented immigrants, but many legal immigrants face significant obstacles in the last step of their journey to citizenship.

The New Americans Campaign (NAC) is a bi-partisan national coalition working to modernize and streamline access to naturalization services. Below Eric Cohen, the executive director of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, a Haas, Jr. Fund grantee helping lead the campaign, writes about what NAC is doing, and why encouraging citizenship is so important.

At the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, we are proud to be part of a national effort – the New Americans Campaign- that is paving a better road to citizenship through streamlining and modernizing access to naturalization services. The New Americans Campaign, funded by the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund  and other foundation partners, has assembled a diverse coalition of legal-service providers, businesses, foundations and community leaders across the nation to transform the system of naturalization assistance.

Recently, we have seen an unprecedented focus on our country’s broken immigration system. People from across the political spectrum now recognize that our current immigration policies are sorely outdated and need to be modernized. But there is a crucial element of the immigration story that is too often ignored – the barriers preventing millions of eligible immigrants from becoming American citizens.

Rahm Emanuel and Luis Gutierrez’s April 3rd op-ed in the New York Times, “Priced Out of Citizenship” helped shed some light on the millions of eligible legal permanent residents (LPRs) who have been left out of the immigration reform debate. They note, “There are 8.5 million legal permanent residents of the United States (also known as green-card holders) who are eligible for citizenship, but in 2011, only about 8 percent of them applied.”

When 92% of the currently eligible population does not take the final step to achieving the full American Dream, something needs to change.

Eric Cohen

Why the vast disparity? When 92% of the currently eligible population does not take the final step to achieving the full American Dream, something needs to change.

The high cost of applying for citizenship is a major impediment for many immigrants. But onerous fees are not the only barrier. Aspiring citizens must navigate a complicated and cumbersome naturalization system with little support. That leaves them vulnerable to unscrupulous notaries and others who take advantage of them. At the same time, access to English classes is diminishing.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  We believe in the power of innovation, collaboration, and technology to completely transform the journey to citizenship.

The New Americans Campaign spearheads promising service approaches across the country, such as our new “mega-workshop” process that streamlines the resources of multiple agencies to serve hundreds of LPRs in a single day – a tenfold increase over previous models.

We partner with trusted leaders and institutions, such as working with the Los Angeles Mayor’s office to establish “Citizenship Corners” in nearly every library in the City to provide resource and referral information to LPRs. We’ve also launched the Bethlehem Project, which helps corporate leaders offer naturalization assistance to their employees.

With new technology platforms and creative applications, such as the award-winning CitizenshipWorks software (and new mobile app) or MP3 players loaded with civics questions, we simplify the mass of information and utilize familiar electronics to support providers and applicants alike.

Through these advancements, we are seeing great results. In just over 18 months, the New Americans Campaign has helped 37,000 eligible immigrants complete their applications.

More LPRs have greater access to essential services like ESL and civics classes. Addressing the point Emanuel and Gutierrez raised, NAC and our affiliates have helped LPRs who cannot afford the high application fee apply for an estimated $4.5 million worth of fee waivers. But there is much more that needs to change to support these immigrants in their journey.

It is essential for our elected leaders and others to advocate for a better path for eligible aspiring Americans as a key element of immigration reform efforts.  When new Americans gain the rights, freedoms, and responsibilities of citizenship, it only strengthens the vibrancy of our communities and nation.

The New Americans Campaign brings together over 80 organizations across the country including the following key funders who have made an unprecedented investment in supporting aspiring citizens: Carnegie Corporation of New York; the John S. and the James L. Knight Foundation; Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund; Grove Foundation; Open Society Foundations and The JPB Foundation. NAC is a bi-partisan national network of legal-service providers, faith-based organizations, businesses, foundations and community leaders working to modernize and streamline access to naturalization services.