Despite challenges and falling numbers, immigrants still inspired to naturalize
By Emily Beck
In a few months, Paredes, originally from the Dominican Republic, will have to prove her language proficiency to a naturalization test proctor.
She’s been practicing reading and writing in English, but she said she still has a lot to learn before the test.
Despite the challenges immigrants face — heightened application and lawyer fees, confusion about the naturalization process, drawn-out waiting periods and an English literacy requirement — many still want to become American citizens.
Government numbers say Paredes is part of a small statistic. An estimated 13.3 million legal immigrants — or those who have a green card — live permanently in the United States , and 8.8 million of them are eligible for citizenship.
In 2013, only 8.9 percent, or 783,200, began the process of naturalization.
Paredes lived in the Dominican Republic until her mother, a permanent resident in the U.S., brought her to the states at age 18.
Like so many other immigrants, Paredes’ mother said she wanted her child to have a chance at a better life.
They moved to Puerto Rico, then to Chicago, then Paredes came to Bloomington in 2010 with her husband.
Paredes now has four children ages 18, 14, 3 and 4.
Two months ago, Paredes began gathering the paperwork she would need to file a citizenship application.
With a lawyer’s help, it’s costing her about $900. But for Paredes, the price is worth it.
When an immigrant gets legal permanent resident status he or she must meet further requirements to become naturalized.
According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, permanent residents must be at least 18 years old, pass civic and English proficiency exams and be “a person of good moral character.”
He or she must also have lived in the U.S. for at least five years and been “physically present” for at least 30 months.
Once these requirements are met, a permanent resident can begin the long process of paperwork that leads to being a U.S. citizen.
“I think people feel intimidated,” said Melissa Rodgers, a director at the New Americans Campaign, a network that helps permanent residents become citizens.
She said people are scared of the cost, the English requirement and the complexity of the entire process.
The application for naturalization, Form N400, increased from 10 to 21 pages of questions, Rodgers said.
In 2007 the fee for filing it increased by 80 percent, from $330 to $595, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
The cost of fingerprinting services required for the application also increased.
For middle-class workers like Paredes, who works at a Cracker Barrel in Bloomington, these fees aren’t always easy to pay.
Legal fees add more to the bill, but many people looking to naturalize want a lawyer’s help. A form filled out incorrectly could get sent back, which would delay the process and complicate matters further.
Christine Popp, an immigration lawyer in Bloomington, said naturalization is so complex that it can take decades to immigrate successfully to the U.S. depending on one’s country of origin, level of education and connections within the country.
“People think it’s an easy, straightforward process,” she said. “It’s very confusing and can be very difficult for people.”
Though becoming a citizen is a time investment, Rodgers said the issues can be dealt with. Fee waivers are available and one’s English doesn’t have to be impeccable.
She said she thinks the trouble is worth it.
Permanent residents have some benefits, but ultimately they are missing out on access to federal jobs, full protection from deportation, voting and traveling without worry.
Rodgers said there’s a chance a green card holder wouldn’t be able to reenter the country after time away.
“There could be a presumption that you abandoned your green card and you could not be let back in,” she said.
Permanent residents can’t vote or sit on juries and, in some states, they don’t have full access to government benefits like food stamps and healthcare, Rodgers said.
“People who don’t have the right to vote are really living in this country disenfranchised ... not having a voice,” she said. “U.S. citizenship is a very precious thing.”
Now, Paredes is beginning the paperwork that will lead to her citizenship.
Rodgers called the English proficiency requirement one of the main reasons people choose not to become naturalized.
However, Paredes will continue to practice.
It’s her key to citizenship, to helping her husband, to feeling more secure and to voting in the next election.
Although she will struggle, Paredes said she isn’t scared of any of it.
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