This land becomes their land. New US citizens hit a 15-year high


On a windswept morning last spring, mom Leveille slipped into a flowing red dress and high-heeled sandals and headed to a baseball stadium in Brooklyn, her nerves on edge. A Cambodian refugee, Ms. Leveille had applied for US citizenship nearly two years earlier and, finally, the time was near when she would take a permanent oath of allegiance to the country where her family had taken refuge.

In the stands of Maimonides Park, she joined 250 people from 65 countries who were sworn in by judges dressed in their formal black robes. Like Ms. Leveille, 39, many new Americans had waited more than a year to be invited to the naturalization ceremony since first submitting their applications.

She wiped away tears that day as she stood to deliver a speech about safety, electoral voice and the responsibility that comes with becoming a citizen. “It was a very, very long and very emotional process,” she said.

Across the country, naturalization ceremonies are making a comeback, in parks, sports arenas and courthouses, after a long hiatus caused by Covid-19 shutdowns that suspended public gatherings, closed immigration offices and suspended thousands of citizenship applications.

Nearly one million immigrants became citizens in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, the most in nearly 15 years and the third-highest number on record, according to a recent Pew Research analysis. demonstrating the growing impact of immigration on who lives and works in the United States – and who votes.

“People have an incentive to become citizens,” said Jeffrey S. Passel, senior demographer at Pew Research, who co-authored the study based on government data. “The numbers haven’t just rebounded. They reach levels that we have rarely seen in our history.

The total number of people seeking to become citizens is not reflected in year-end data and is in fact much higher due to the backlog of applications. Some 670,000 naturalizations are still pending.

The Biden administration has taken several steps to streamline the process, such as simplifying forms and redirecting interviewees from cities with expanded immigration offices to those with capacity. This reduced the backlog of pending applications by over one million as of December 2020.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that handles applications, also recently announced that it will soon be conducting a trial of a redesigned naturalization test intended to be more fair and consistent. For the oral assessment, candidates will be asked to describe three photographs of daily activities, weather or food. The aim is to test everyday use of English, rather than relying on complex questions whose answers may differ significantly depending on immigrants’ personal histories and countries of origin. (Candidates will still be separately asked to answer security questions in English as part of the exam.)

“It is good for the nation that people join it in the fullest way possible,” said Ur M. Jaddou, Director of USCIS. “That has been a priority since the beginning of this administration.”

The Biden administration’s moves are a reversal of those of the Trump administration, which has increased review of applications and made the citizenship test heavier and more difficult as part of its program to curb legal immigration. .

But this administration’s immigration posture has backfired, waking up many long-time legal residents to the fact that a green card does not protect them from deportation. And many felt compelled to apply for citizenship in order to vote.

“Deliberately lowering naturalization rates was one of the most short-sighted strategies pursued by the Trump administration,” said Wayne A. Cornelius, founding director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California, San Francisco. Diego.

“The rise under Biden primarily reflects insecurity caused by Republican politicians’ relentless demonization of immigrants, as well as greater confidence that they can pass the revised test,” he said. (President Biden reinstated the previous test after taking office, with a view to revamping it even further.)

Ms. Leveille had lived in the United States for more than three decades, raising four American-born children, before deciding to become a citizen. “I had a green card and never thought about it until Trump became president,” she said.

At that point, she says, “I realized that I needed citizenship to be safe.”

Many immigrants were moved to naturalize after the assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, said Ana Maria Schwartz, a Texas immigration attorney. She said she was seeing an increase in the number of clients seeking help with citizenship applications.

“They want to make sure the United States is the safe and stable place they came from,” Ms. Schwartz said.

A green card was enough for Miguel Escobedo, 56, a Houston resident who was brought to Texas from Mexico as a toddler. His legal resident status allowed him to serve in the National Guard and the United States Army. But as 2021 began, he said, he felt increasingly unsettled by the hateful rhetoric and violence engulfing the country.

“What the hell was going on? Mr. said Escobedo. “With the direction I saw my adopted country taking, I wanted the right to vote.” He hired Ms Schwartz to help speed up the citizenship process and was sworn in in April.

Immigrants who demonstrate continuous legal permanent residence in the United States for at least five years, or three years if married to a US citizen, are eligible to apply for citizenship. They must pass background checks, submit a host of supporting documents, and pass civics and English tests in an interview.

The 970,000 naturalizations in fiscal year 2022 were the highest since fiscal year 2008, when 1.05 million immigrants became citizens, an all-time high. (Numbers are counted since 1907.)

A spike in naturalization applications occurred in 1997, after 2.7 million undocumented immigrants were granted legal status under a 1986 amnesty program, which made them eligible for citizenship years later. The number of requests also skyrocketed in fiscal 2005, before an increase in fees.

Government fees now total $725, and hiring a lawyer can add several thousand dollars to the cost.

The population of naturalized citizens in the United States tripled between 1995 and 2019, from 7.6 million to 22.1 million, according to Pew estimates. The share of all eligible immigrants who have been naturalized has grown steadily, reaching almost two-thirds in 2019, up from 38% in 1995.

Newly minted voters could be crucial in states like Pennsylvania, Nevada, Michigan and Arizona, whose large electorates of naturalized citizens have been influential. Many more permanent residents in these battleground states are likely to naturalize in the coming years.

“These new voters are ripe for mobilization and will help determine which party will dominate in these states,” said Louis DeSipio, professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine. “Needless to say, these states determine which party wins the presidency.”

Some nine million immigrants to the United States are lawful permanent residents eligible for citizenship.

Less than half of those in Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Japan are naturalized, compared to at least 80% in Cambodia, Iran, Laos, Poland and Vietnam.

In addition to conferring the right to vote, citizenship allows people to serve on juries and sponsor other family members for residency in the United States. It also gives them access to some federal benefits and government jobs.

Still, even with the Biden administration’s efforts to speed up the process, it will take some time to significantly reduce the backlog of citizenship applications, experts said.

“Things are going in a positive direction, but it’s hard to catch up,” said Xiao Wang, chief executive of Boundless, a tech company that helps families navigate the US immigration system.

“They are naturalizing more people,” he said, “but the waiting time is still long, 15 to 18 months.”

Boundless estimates that nearly 300,000 potential citizens should have been eligible to vote in the 2020 elections but were unable to vote due to the suspension of naturalization services.

With the lifting of pandemic restrictions, USCIS began holding naturalization ceremonies in large halls. On Dec. 7, nearly 2,000 immigrants from 120 countries were sworn in as U.S. citizens at Chicago’s Wintrust Arena.

Alex De Mola, an Italian immigrant, applied in September 2020. More than a year has passed and he hasn’t heard a word from the government.

“I think my files were buried in a cave during Covid,” he said. “I thought they were lost.”

Finally, he was invited for an in-person interview in April, passed the test, and attended a naturalization ceremony the following month.

“I didn’t want to be someone caught between two worlds,” said De Mola, 39, who runs an online skincare retailer in Austin, Texas. “I want to spend my life here. I want to vote, have an impact on society and make choices as a citizen.

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