NEW YORK — New York officials and community advocates are drumming up support for a statewide naturalization campaign, saying that despite a recent increase in citizenship applications, there are still hundreds of thousands of immigrants across the state who are eligible to become U.S. citizens.
The campaign, known as NaturalizeNY, offers vouchers to cover the application fee for applicants who qualify, aiming to maximize the number of citizenship applications, and, in turn, boost the state’s economy.
Together with the national, nonpartisan network New Americans Campaign, it is one of several efforts across the country to help eligible immigrants apply for citizenship.
Nationally, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) reported that it has received more than 725,000 applications for citizenship so far this year, a 25-percent increase over the same period last year. This increase reflects the upward trend typically seen during presidential election years.
Yet organizers say there are still many New Yorkers who are eligible for citizenship and have not taken that step.
“The truth is, [according to a 2015 report by The Urban Institute], there are over 642,000 individuals in New York City alone who are eligible for naturalization,” said Roberto Frugone, northeast regional director of NALEO Educational Fund, at a recent ethnic media briefing hosted here by New America Media in association with the National Immigration Forum and the New Americans Campaign.
“And there are about 915,000 [eligible immigrants] in the entire New York state,” he said, according to a report by the Center for Migration Studies of New York.
If information on naturalization reaches more immigrant communities, Frugone says, more individuals are expected to file their applications and become U.S. citizens. “It’s a lot easier than most people think,” he said, “and we’re here to help.”
Syed Jamal, a recently naturalized U.S. citizen, said the time it took to become a citizen was shorter than he expected.
“It was quick. I filed my application in March 2016 and I got my citizenship in August,” said Jamal, who came to the United States from Bangladesh 17 years ago.
With the help of a community organization whose staff members spoke his native language, he got the assistance he needed.
“I highly encourage immigrants to seek the help of these community organizations,” he added. “They’re very helpful.”
Jorge Montalvo, deputy secretary of State of New York for Economic Opportunity, said that there’s a chronic lack of information on naturalization in immigrant communities.
For example, many applicants don’t know that a fee waiver is available for low-income individuals who can’t afford the $680 citizenship fee.
“We are here to make sure that they [immigrants] are wanted here and that they belong here,” Montalvo said. “So, those who are below the poverty line, they don’t need to pay the application fee. It’s the government’s role to welcome these people, and so we will cover the cost.”
In the state of New York, additional assistance is available to those who earn too much to qualify for a fee waiver.
The NaturalizeNY initiative, launched by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in July, offers a lottery for 2,000 naturalization application fee vouchers for low-income immigrants who don’t qualify for a fee waiver.
The New Americans Campaign, now in its fifth year, holds free naturalization workshops, providing legal assistance and access to in-language services for those applying for U.S. citizenship. In New York alone, it has conducted 330 workshops, leading to over 23,000 applications and saving applicants a total of more than $23 million between July 2011 and March 2016.
Alejandro Paulino, a native of the Dominican Republic, says he has more economic opportunities as a U.S. citizen.
New York City Councilmember Carlos Menchaca, who is the first Mexican American elected to public office in New York City, said becoming a U.S. citizen is one step toward greater civic engagement.
Foreign-born families in the city want their voices to be heard, he said. “And one of the best ways to get your voice heard is to become a naturalized citizen.”
The status of immigrants, he said, is part of legislative discussions on what policies to create to address the needs and concerns of immigrant communities.
“We’ve seen a lot of people who want to change the perspective on the legislation,” Menchaca added. “This is an interesting crossroads.”
Alejandro Paulino, 48, said he couldn’t have been happier when he became a U.S. citizen a few months ago.
He says he has more economic opportunities as a U.S. citizen, and he also has more rights as a citizen of this country.
“I’m very appreciative of all the efforts that these community organizations that helped me to make it happen,” said Paulino, a native of the Dominican Republic. “I’m now a very proud American citizen and I would be able to help others. Hopefully, all my family members will also get naturalized.”
For more information about the New Americans Campaign and upcoming citizenship workshops, go to www.newamericanscampaign.org.