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DALLAS – Claudia Jovel didn’t have to undergo a perilous journey to reach American soil when she came here 20 years ago from El Salvador. She was able to make the trip with a card that identified her as a U.S. resident.
That’s because her sister is a U.S. citizen, and was able to secure the future of her entire family once she naturalized, petitioning for each of them to come join her in the United States.
“My sister Sandra petitioned for all of us when she became a citizen. It benefited me a lot because I could come here with my children, who now have their own lives and are successful professionals,” says Jovel, who is now 74.
The funny thing is that, like many other Legal Permanent Residents of this country, Jovel never applied for citizenship for herself -- despite the fact that she had lived here for two decades and met all of the requirements.
“I renewed my green card twice. I wasn’t in a hurry to become a citizen. I also don’t speak English and I didn’t have much money,” explains Jovel, who lives in Grand Prairie, Tex.
It was the news of upcoming changes to the N-400 form, the form used to apply for citizenship, that made her change her mind.
Jovel submitted her application for U.S. citizenship in April of this year and on October 11, she was already sitting in front of an immigration official for her interview. Now, having passed the test, the Salvadoran is just waiting for her swearing-in ceremony.
“It was a lot easier than I thought. Now I feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I’m really happy because I feel like I accomplished a really important goal, even though I’m 74,” she says.
Jovel says the process of applying for citizenship wasn’t as hard as she thought it would be.
“I went to a workshop organized by Proyecto Inmigrante where they filled out the paperwork for me,” she says. The workshop is part of the New Americans Campaign, a national initiative to make citizenship more accessible for immigrants like Jovel. “They also helped me apply for a fee waiver that’s given to low-income people, so I didn’t even have to pay the $680 fee,” she adds happily.
Jovel is referring to the I-912 fee waiver form, the financial aid that the government has provided for years to those who can’t cover the cost of the processing fees.
Douglas Interiano, executive director of Proyecto Inmigrante ICS, Inc., says that not everyone who is eligible for a fee waiver takes advantage of it.
“Some applicants don’t even know it exists. Others don’t ask for it because they don’t think they are going to get it. But the truth is that if you meet the requirements and show that you are low-income, you are sure to get a fee waiver so you don’t have to pay the $680,” says Interiano.
He adds that if the person who wants to apply for a fee waiver is receiving some kind of government aid like WIC or food stamps, there is a greater chance that they qualify for a fee waiver.
Like Jovel, there are millions of Legal Permanent Residents who are eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship, but haven’t applied. The majority of them are Mexican, according to a February 2014 study by the Pew Research Center.
According to the study, Mexicans are the largest minority in the United States, for both undocumented immigrants and legal residents. However, only 36 percent of eligible Mexican immigrants have become U.S. citizens. The majority has not taken that step, citing factors such as lack of knowledge of English, lack of interest and lack of money.
Mexican naturalization rates are lower than those of other Latino immigrants, 36 percent compared to 61 percent, according to figures from 2011.
Interiano says these statistics reflect what he sees in his office.
“A lot of people are deterred by the language; for others, it’s money; while others still dream of one day returning to their home country and prefer to remain just as permanent residents. What they don’t understand is that they’re losing the opportunity to vote and to get other benefits that are only available to citizens,” he says.
The good news for Jovel is that, at age 74, she won’t have to worry anymore about renewing her green card, or about being questioned by immigration agents. On the contrary, she’s now able to live a more peaceful life, enjoying the benefits that this country offers her.
“One of the first things I’m going to do after my swearing-in ceremony is register to vote,” says the Salvadoran senior.
For more information about the N-400 and 1-192 forms and to see if you are eligible for citizenship, go to: www.uscis.gov.
This article was produced as part of a New America Media fellowship program. To learn more about how to become a U.S. citizen, visit the New Americans Campaign at www.newamericanscampaign.org.