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Fear, Language, Money: Tackling Barriers to Citizenship

Avila spoke recently in San Jose, Calif., to more than 20 media representatives at the first ethnic media roundtable of the New Americans Campaign, a national initiative to encourage eligible legal Permanent Residents to apply for citizenship. The meeting, organized by New America Media, brought together leaders of Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Korean, Latino, Vietnamese and other local media outlets to discuss how they could address the barriers that keep many eligible immigrants from applying for U.S. citizenship, writes Elena Shore.

(Above): The ethnic media roundtable to discuss how to address the barriers that keep many eligible immigrants from applying for U.S. citizenship. [Amar D. Gupta | Siliconeer]

Adrian Avila plans to apply for citizenship for one major reason.

“I’m doing it for my mother,” says Avila.

Avila, a content producer at the bilingual magazine Silicon Valley De-Bug in San Jose, came to the United States with his mother when he was six years old.

Now 29, he is one year younger than his mother was when she decided to leave everything behind in Mexico to build a better life for her son in the United States.

Today, Avila wants to give something back to her: he plans to apply for citizenship so that he can petition for his mother to become a U.S. citizen.

Taking the step to naturalize will also allow him to vote, travel freely, be protected from deportation, live without fear and advocate more effectively for his rights.

But ultimately, he says, his reason for applying for citizenship is not just about himself.

“It always comes down to my mother,” he explains.

Why aren’t more people applying for citizenship?

More than eight million immigrants across the United States have green cards and are eligible for U.S. citizenship. Yet only 8 percent of them become citizens each year, according to Vanessa Sandoval, immigration legal services program director of Services, Immigrant Rights and Education Network (SIREN) in San Jose.

“That means 92 percent [of eligible immigrants] aren’t,” said Sandoval. That, she said, means they aren’t voting. They are limited in their Supplemental Security Income. If they leave the country for six months, they might not be let back in. And they could even be vulnerable to deportation.

In Santa Clara County alone, an estimated 190,000 Legal Permanent Residents are eligible for naturalization. Yet an average of only 14,597 take the step to naturalize each year, according to Sandoval.

That’s why SIREN and other local groups are organizing free citizenship workshops where Legal Permanent Residents can get help processing their applications.

Many green card holders, organizers say, are held back by a number of barriers, such as financial and language barriers.

“What we aim to do is reduce these barriers,” explained Bea Pangilinan, staff attorney with Asian Law Alliance.

For example, it costs $680 to file for citizenship. But many immigrants may not know that if their income falls below poverty level, they qualify for a fee waiver.

Those who don’t speak English well may think that limits their chances of becoming a citizen. But if they have been here for many years, they can qualify to take the exam in their native language – something that many immigrants may not be aware of.

And if they do need to take the exam in English, said Pangilinan of the Asian Law Alliance in San Jose, “We give them the confidence and tell them they just need to practice.”

But some of the biggest obstacles to applying for citizenship may be psychological.

“Another barrier is a general fear,” said Pangilinan. “They don’t know what to expect. They don’t know what documents they are supposed to produce.”

Amir Music of International Rescue Committee says he has seen many immigrants who have lived for 20 or 30 years as Legal Permanent Residents but never applied for citizenship.

“The biggest challenge,” Music said, “is lack of information.”

The power of ethnic media. Organizers said the media that serve immigrant communities could play a crucial role in closing this gap -- informing their audiences about the value of becoming a U.S. citizen, and the free resources available to Legal Permanent Residents through the New Americans Campaign.

Interested readers can find more information about the New Americans Campaign at www.newamericanscampaign.org.

Elena Shore is a senior editor at New America Media, where she directs NAM’s immigration beat. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Oberlin College in Spanish and Latin American Studies. Her writing in Spanish and English has appeared in media outlets including La Opinión, Nieman Reports, Alternet and Huffington Post.


Click here to read the Current Issue in Magazine format

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Quirky Politics or Vigilantism:
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EDITORIAL: The Origins of Yoga
CELEBRATION: India’s 65th Republic Day
COMMENTARY: The Politics of Paranoia
HEALTH: Free Radical Damage
PERSPECTIVE: Humans and their Assistants
FINANCE: Tips on Saving on Taxes
COMMUNITY: Barriers to Citizenship
TRIBUTE: Mahanayika Suchitra Sen
SOCIETY: Bollywood’s ‘Ex’ Factor
AUTO REVIEW: 2014 Toyota Avalon Hybrid
RECIPE: Gobhi Chana Capsicum
BOLLYWOOD: Film Review: Jai Ho
FICTION: Can Men Water Plants?

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