There are 8 million immigrants across the country who are eligible for U.S. citizenship but have not yet applied, and a disproportionate number, nearly 2 million, live in New York City.
Reaching them is a challenge. On June 30, immigration advocates highlighted the obstacles these potential new citizens face, and some possible solutions, in a roundtable event held at the headquarters of the International Rescue Committee.
The roundtable was hosted by New America Media, which partners with, and advocates for, ethnic media outlets.
The media organization is bringing to the attention of ethnic media the efforts of The New Americans Campaign, a nonprofit national network that has been organizing and educating immigrants on the citizenship process and its benefits since 2011.
New America Media is sponsoring a number of events in key U.S. cities.
“It’s hard work to get people to know that citizenship is possible,” said Sandy Close, executive director of New America Media, the organization that hosted the event in partnership with several others.
Despite the benefits of achieving U.S. citizenship – the right to vote, run for office, hold some federal government positions, access to a U.S. passport – many eligible immigrants do not apply because of complex applications, the high cost of applying and confusion about the consequences for those who may want to retain citizenship in their country of origin.
Though there has been an uptick of citizenship applications nationally and in New York City recently, only 8 percent of those eligible across the country are applying, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
“I can tell you that the numbers are tremendously low,” said Angela Fernandez, executive director of the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights, a nonprofit that has been offering immigrant services for three decades in New York.
The application form has recently been simplified. While the new form is double the length, immigration advocates say it’s easier for applicants to understand and complete than the previous form.
A citizenship application now costs $680 and that “is a true, true barrier,” Fernandez said.
“If they are not eligible for the waiver we are told they will not apply,” she said.
Lawful permanent residents who receive government assistance or who have incomes under 150 percent of the poverty level may be eligible for a waiver of the application fee.
“Naturalization and citizenship is important, not just for the individuals who live here but also for the economic vitality of the city as a whole,” said Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs Nisha Agarwal.
She said the city is taking a look at the “return on investment” of investing in legal services to help people to become citizens.
“One way that we work to make New York City more inclusive is by continuing and expanding our work around citizenship,” Agarwal said.
The city will be expanding its NYCitizenship in Schools program that provides information and assistance to parents of children in the public school system. The program is conducted in partnership with CUNY Citizenship NOW! and works with a credit union to offer low interest loans to pay for the application fee.
Lauren Burke, executive director of the organization Atlas: DIY (Developing Immigrant Youth), cited the election of City Councilman Carlos Menchaca and his strong position on municipal IDs as an example of the political power of immigrants who achieve citizenship.
“That’s a great example of a political change that was made that supports all immigrants because people have the ability to vote someone into office,” Burke said.
New York is the fifth city of eight that New America Media and The New Americans Campaign is targeting in their outreach to immigrants and local media. Later this month there will be a free citizenship workshop at Hostos Community College in the Bronx where attendees can get assistance in applying for citizenship. The citizenship application fee will be waived for eligible applicants.