Groups Organize Around New Citizenship Campaign

Citizenship Day is Sept. 17.

By Jacqueline Garcia, EGP Staff Writer

The city of Los Angeles has joined local organizations and other cities across the country to promote Cities for Citizenship, an initiative to encourage more eligible, lawful permanent residents to become U.S. citizens.

The goal of the national campaign is to increase the number of immigrants eligible to vote before the 2016 Presidential Election.

Saul Montoya, a lawful permanent resident eligible to apply for U.S. Citizenship, resisted taking the step for 35 years, believing he would one day return to his native Mexico to live.

But that day never came and last week during a round table discussion hosted by New America Media in collaboration with the New Americans Campaign at Los Angeles City Hall, Montoya said he was tired of the negative remarks made by politicians and anti-immigrant groups about people like him and decided it was time to become a citizen.

Community groups met last week at Los Angeles City Halll to organize a new citizenship campaign.  (EGP photo by Jacqueline Garcia)

Community groups met last week at Los Angeles City Halll to organize a new citizenship campaign. (EGP photo by Jacqueline Garcia)

The purpose of the roundtable was to expose ethnic media outlets to the political impacts of naturalization and the challenges that keep immigrants from applying.

In Montoya’s case, his wife, children and grandchildren are all U.S. citizens; he was the exception.

Joining in the discussion were representatives of Latino, Asian, and other ethnic media outlets as well as representatives of Mayor Eric Garcetti, NALEO Educational Fund and Asian Americans Advancing Justice-LA, to name a few.

Disparaging remarks made by GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump and others convinced Montoya it was time for a change.

“I realized then that instead of demonizing these politicians, we should register to vote,” said the 62-year-old new citizen.

What really heightened his sense of urgency, however, was his wife being diagnosed with cancer.

He wanted to help her, but instead she asked him to help himself by becoming a citizen.

“[She] said, ‘If I die first, I don’t want to leave you in this situation,’” he recalled.

He applied in March and was sworn-in this past June.

It’s estimated there are 800,000 lawful permanent residents in Los Angeles County who are eligible to become citizens: About half live in the city of Los Angeles city alone, said Linda Lopez, Garcetti’s Immigrant Affairs chief.

“There’s a high need for individuals to become citizens, to make their voices heard” in the upcoming elections, Lopez said.

Nasim Khansari, Citizen Project Director with AAAJ-LA, said there are a number of barriers that keep people from going through the citizenship process. The reasons range from the cost of the naturalization process to language barriers, or simply not knowing where to go to fill out the application.

For example, “there are immigrants who want to become citizens but can’t because they can’t afford the $680 process fee,” she said.

But now applicants have options for overcoming this hurdle. Some banks offer micro loans to with very low interest rates to pay for the application, according to Khansari.

Fee waivers are also available under the following circumstances:

—If the applicant receives government benefits such as food stamps or Medi-Cal.

—If the applicant makes 150% below poverty level.

—If the applicant has an extreme hardship to show that he/she can’t afford to pay the amount.

Applicants, however, should take in consideration that some countries, like Cuba, Bolivia and Paraguay, do not accept dual citizenship.

Lopez said the city’s 73 public libraries have materials that can help with the application process, ranging from test booklets, DVDs and CDs to online resources “in a variety of languages.”

Many even offer English as a Second Language (ESL) classes and intense citizenship courses to help people pass their citizenship exam.

Citizenship is not only being promoted in libraries and through nonprofits, but also in the workplace, added Laura Barrera with the National Workforce Forum said

For example, the Ralphs grocery chain will hold four forums where they will provide information to their employees on the process to becoming a citizen, she said.

Once eligible lawful residents become citizens, they need to vote, emphasized Elisa Sequeira, Director of NALEO’s National Civic Engagement Programs.

New citizens are less likely to register to vote than U.S. born, she said. They need information on where to register and to know who the candidates are.

“New citizens are more likely to vote if they are invited and encouraged,” she explained.

Sept. 17 Citizenship Day and many organizations across the country will be hosting workshops to help permanent residents through the process.

Community partners such as AAAJA-LA, NALEO, the International Rescue Committee, CHIRLA and the Youth Policy Institute are among the groups that regularly hold workshops to help people apply for citizenship, register to vote and to learn how to be more financially stable.

Today, Montoya is happy that he finally took the step to become a legal citizen of the country where he established his roots nearly four decades ago.

“This is the country where I have worked, where I bought my house and where I raised my children,” he told EGP in Spanish. “It may be a little too late for me, but not for other [younger] people.”

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September 10, 2015  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.

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