EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Nearly a million lawful immigrants in Texas are eligible for U.S. citizenship but have not applied for it – something local officials and grassroots groups want to change in the next year or so.
They’re part of the “Naturalize 2 million by 2022” national initiative to increase citizenship applications, help people overcome cost and language barriers, and swell future voter rolls. The groups estimate 9 million immigrants nationwide meet citizenship requirements right now.
“People see the United States as a place to better their lives, they feel good about it but they’re still not able to vote or run for public office. We need people to vote here on the border so that we can be heard in places like Austin,” said El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego.
About one in four residents of border cities like El Paso, Laredo and Brownsville were born abroad, according to the census. What these cities have in common is being right across from Mexico and often complaining about not getting their fair share of state resources.
“We’re always wondering what we can do to get more people to vote. We have very low voting and when we don’t vote we don’t have a voice. Someone running for office doesn’t care if we vote against them because we don’t have enough votes,” Samaniego said.
The county’s Office of New Americans is coordinating community outreach to promote the benefits of citizenship. It is working with health advocates and low-income meal program participants, among others.
Cost and lack of information are obstacles that keep immigrants from the naturalization process. Filing the N-400 Form with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services costs $640 plus an $85 biometrics fee.
“Many in our community live day-to-day. Some try to save money for it but the fees are very high. Some need help filing the forms and run into unscrupulous lawyers that charge them a lot of money,” said Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights.
The group is promoting the citizenship drive and lobbying for free or low-cost legal assistance for filers. It recently sponsored a free citizenship clinic and wants to have more in the future.
“We’re behind this because citizenship isn’t just a piece of paper, it’s the full inclusion of immigrants into society. It allows them the right to vote, to participate in politics and to demand accountability without fear,” Garcia said. “They’re also exposed to losing their ‘green cards’ for things such as DWIs that an American citizen can brush off paying a fine.”
USCIS has a fee-waiver program for N-400 filers who make less than $20,385 a year. It also exempts those over 50 years old who have lived in this country legally for two decades or more from the English proficiency requirement.
That’s something many lawful legal residents don’t know and that the campaign seeks to bring to light, Samaniego said.
The county judge offered his own father as an example of a successful immigrant who kept his homeland of Mexico in his heart, but was elated and proud the day he became a U.S. citizen.
He also equated financial and information obstacles as a sort of “voter suppression” that needs to be overcome.