By Dianne Solis
Carlos Chavez walked with great purpose, despite his cane. The 85-year-old Mexico-born immigrant and physician finally became a US citizen at a recent music-filled ceremony at the iconic Amon Carter Museum of American Art.
The retired doctor is one of many immigrants pushing the number of citizenship applications to new highs — especially in Texas, which leads the nation by percentage increase.
Some call it the Trump effect. The harsh rhetoric of President Donald Trump against immigrants, including legal immigrants, is causing an unusual surge in filings that has created a huge backlog of about 709,000 people in the pipeline for US citizenship.
Chavez said he filed his naturalisation application “to prevent any problems” after the presidential election, even though he was here legally long before Trump moved into the White House.
His wife, Isabel Clement, also a naturalised US citizen, was more direct and defensive. Candidate Trump infamously labelled Mexican immigrants drug traffickers and rapists. “We aren’t assassins or rateros” — rats — said Clement, an engineer. “We have contributed to this country.”
Lawful permanent residents, or so-called green-carders, can still be deported if they commit an increasing number of offences. But becoming a US citizen provides security and the right to vote. Studies show that naturalised citizens vote with greater vigour than native-born citizens.
Marco Antonio Avila draped a Catholic rosary around his neck to commemorate the Fort Worth ceremony at the museum. The 35-year-old Mexican immigrant from Fort Worth said he took the step of moving from legal permanent resident to US citizenship because he’d have more rights and could vote.
Then, there is Trump.
“All the stuff he is trying to do!” Avila said. “The US was founded by immigrants. So I don’t know why they want to send us back.”
The Chicago-based National Partnership for New Americans estimates there will be more than 1 million applicants for citizenship this fiscal year.
That’s unusual because the large number comes after a presidential election year, said Joshua Hoyt, the partnership’s executive director. Usually, increases in applications come before an election, as in 2007, when Barack Obama was first a presidential candidate. Total application fees nearly doubled then, Hoyt said.
Application numbers after the 2008 presidential election dropped below 600,000, government statistics show.
“So these numbers are extraordinary,” Hoyt said.
Texas leads because of its pool of potential citizens, Hoyt said. But also because people “are afraid and angry and want to participate in our democracy,” he added.
In Texas, there was a 61 percent jump in applications from fiscal year 2015 to fiscal year 2017, according to the partnership’s study.
At the national and local levels, several organisations have been pooling resources to promote citizenship and immigrant integration. In October, Dallas City Hall and its new Office of Welcoming Communities and Immigrant Affairs got behind the effort with a citizenship application workshop at the downtown library.
A “Naturalize Now” campaign with more than two dozen organisations has set a goal of naturalising a million people in 2017, and it appears to be on target to meet that.
Even the Mexican consulate in Dallas played host last year to a citizenship workshop. There, several immigrants cited then-candidate Trump as a motivating and defensive force to become a US citizen and US voter.
A Mexican law went into effect in 1998 that changed rules covering Mexican citizenship and nationality. It allows for Mexican citizens to have a second nationality. It’s such an emotional topic that the Mexican law lists as a principal objective “la no perdida de la nacionalidad Mexicana,” or the retention of Mexican nationality.
“We usually tell the Mexican community that having dual citizenship protects families and their rights in both sides of the border,” said Francisco de la Torre, the Mexican consul in Dallas.
In addition to gaining the right to vote and the easing of deportation fears, money should be another motivation for naturalisation, say citizenship proponents.
Naturalised citizens earn more than noncitizens, are less likely to be unemployed, and are better represented in highly skilled jobs, according to a 2012 economic study by the D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute.
Nevertheless, Sarah Pierce, a lawyer and associate policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, believes that “the charged political climate” is contributing heavily to increases in citizenship filings and to an increase in citizenship workshops by nonprofits across the country.
“When you are a green card holder, you are still vulnerable to deportation,” Pierce said. “Considering statements made by our politicians and the increased interior enforcement, people are very motivated to rid themselves of that risk and secure citizenship.”
Hoyt said he is especially worried about the backlog of nearly 709,000 applications for citizenship being handled by US Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Homeland Security Department agency that handles such matters.
Those applicants have already qualified for legal permanent residency and have waited the generally required five years to apply for naturalisation. They also must be able to read, write and speak basic English, with some exceptions for those of advanced age. They study US history and take a civics test, as well. The application fees are now $725.
In the Dallas region, the wait is 13 months to get a naturalisation application processed, according to data provided at the federal website. For the nation, the average wait is nearly nine months, said Arwen FitzGerald, a spokeswoman for the federal citizenship agency.
FitzGerald said there is no “quick fix” to address the surge in applications. From fiscal year 2015 through fiscal year 2016, as the presidential election neared and candidates staked out their positions on immigration and other issues, there was a 24 percent increase in naturalisations.
Citizenship and Immigration Services is setting aside money for additional employee overtime and has started recruiting to fill vacancies across the federal agency, FitzGerald said.
But Hoyt of the National Partnership for New Americans isn’t sure it is enough. His group’s latest study calls the backlog effectively “a second wall,” a reference to the border wall Trump advocates near the Mexican border.
“The US government owes it to the person to process the application in a speedy manner,” Hoyt said. — The Dallas Morning News/TNS
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