In Texas, a Fraction of Eligible Immigrants Get Naturalized

In Texas, a Fraction of Eligible Immigrants Get Naturalized

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Photo: Hortencia Ortega (Anthony Advincula/New America Media)

DALLAS — For Hortencia Ortega, the decision to become a U.S. citizen boiled down to her three children whom she had left behind in Mexico.

An immigrant from San Luis Potosi, she moved to the United States eight years ago in search of work to support her children back home. Alone, she had no other family in the United States when she arrived in Texas.

“I promised that I would return as soon as I could,” she said through a translator, “and that we would be together again.”

Ortega worked odd jobs, and two years after she arrived, she remarried. Her husband is already a U.S. citizen. (Her children are from a previous marriage.) Three years after she got her permanent residency, she filed naturalization paperwork, so she could one day reunite with her children.

Last year, the 56-year-old woman was sworn in as a citizen, and now has an American passport. The $680 fee was waived, because of her low-income status.

“My citizenship has not only given me work stability and financial freedom, but also the opportunity to [be reunited] with my family,” she said.

With the help of an immigration lawyer, Ortega has already started the process of petitioning to bring her three children, now 32, 29 and 27 years old, to the United States.

Changing the attitude

But not all immigrants eligible for naturalization follow in Ortega’s footsteps — a pervasive attitude that, according to citizenship advocacy groups, needs to be changed.

“In Canada, it is almost a default if you don’t get naturalized, while it seems to be the other way around here,” said Lydia Bean, senior consultant at People in Communities Organized (PICO) Network. “And, if [for] any reason you refuse to get naturalized in Canada, you really have to swim against the mainstream.”

Two years ago, there were about 1.3 million legal permanent residents, or green card holders, in Texas. Of that number, about 930,000 were eligible to naturalize.

But, last year, only about 58,000 immigrants in the Lone Star state became naturalized.

Nationally, of the estimated 13.3 million immigrants with legal permanent resident status in the country, about two-thirds were eligible for naturalization.

For eligible immigrants, barriers to applying for naturalization include lack of English skills and civic knowledge, criminal and immigration history, and the $680 application fee.

“Between 2010 and 2014, there has been an increase in the number of legal permanent residents eligible for naturalization, and yet we are not tapping into that,” said Claudia Ortega-Hogue, Texas director of civic engagement for NALEO Educational Fund.

Service providers

Luis Arango-Petrocchi, project manager for the citizenship program at Catholic Charities of Dallas, says eligible immigrants can seek help from service providers.

“We’re here to help complete your N-400 [new] application [form]. We have immigration attorneys and representatives to review your applications,” Petrocchi added. “Citizenship is a life-changing experience.”

For Mario Vargas, becoming a citizen helped him to land an important internship with a government agency.

When he applied for an internship with a federal government agency in Texas, the 23-year-old political science student at the University of Texas realized that his green card was not enough.

“I was told that they will accept me if I became a U.S. citizen,” Vargas said.

With the help of Proyecto Inmigrante, the same Dallas-based immigrant service provider that helped Ortega with her naturalization application, he successfully made it through the interview process.

“I asked the interviewer [immigration officer] if they could speed up the process and, luckily, I was told that they will do the pledge that day so I could get the internship,” Vargas added.

To be eligible for naturalization, the applicant must be a legal permanent resident and at least 18 years old; have lived in the United States continuously for five year or three years if married to a U.S. citizen. The applicant must also be able to speak, read and understand basic English; pass a background check; show knowledge of U.S. government and history; and swear allegiance to the United States.

Acquiring citizenship gives immigrants not only the right to vote and to work for the federal government, but also protects them from deportation, allows them to travel and live abroad indefinitely without losing their status in the United States and petition their children and immediate family members, advocates say.

“A petition from a citizen has a faster approval than the one filed by a legal permanent resident or a green card holder,” said Dan Adriansen, immigration case manager for Catholic Charities of Dallas.

Still, for Ortega, she hopes that her children would be able to come to the United States and live closer to her in the near future.

“I would be the happiest person when that happens,” she said. “I know it is going to happen soon.”

The next free naturalization workshop in the Dallas-Forth Worth area is Saturday, August 9, 8:00 a.m. at Santa Clara Regional Community Center, 321 Calumet Avenue, Dallas, Texas 75211. Call (888) 839-8682 or (855) 622-6242 to register. Immigrants from all ethnic groups are welcome. For more information about the New Americans Campaign, go towww.newamericanscampaign.org.