“When we become a U.S. citizen,” he said, “we have the key — the key to the higher education door, the key to freedom, the key to vote, the key to do whatever we want.”
Truong, who came to the country seven years ago from Vietnam, said he was watching TV one day when he saw there was an upcoming free workshop in San Jose to help people apply for citizenship. With help from the local organization Asian Law Alliance, Truong and his family were able to get fee waivers so they didn’t have to pay the $680 naturalization fees.
Truong, his mother and his sister, applied for citizenship in July, had their interviews in October, and in November they became U.S. citizens.
This year, they will be able to vote in their first U.S. presidential election.
Truong spoke to over 50 ethnic media journalists and community members at San Jose City Hall. The media roundtable was organized by New America Media in collaboration with the New Americans Campaign, a national, non-partisan coalition that aims to make citizenship more accessible.
In a climate of escalating anti-immigrant rhetoric, service providers here are encouraging more immigrants like Truong to take the step to become U.S. citizens so they can have the chance to make their voices heard in November.
“With this presidential election happening right now, the rhetoric around immigrants and immigration is scary,” said Vanessa Sandoval, immigration legal services program director of Services Immigrant Rights & Education Network (SIREN).
“Naturalization empowers people. They become engaged. They have a voice,” said Sandoval.
“The urgency is now,” she said. “It’s a time to come forward.”
John Kramar, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) says becoming a citizen is often easier and faster than people think.
“After someone takes the citizenship test, they often say, ‘That wasn’t as bad as I thought,’” Kramar said. “There was a time in years past when you would file and it would take several years. We’re now averaging four to five months.”
That means that green card holders who apply for U.S. citizenship now could be able to register to vote in time for the elections.
“There are hundreds of thousands of people who are eligible and are not naturalizing,” said Theodore Ko, a staff attorney with Asian Law Alliance. “In an election year, there is no more important reason.”
According to the last available data from 2008, about 193,000 green card holders in Santa Clara County are eligible to naturalize, including about 34,000 Mexicans, 22,000 Vietnamese, 32,000 Chinese and 11,000 Filipinos.
If they naturalize, they will not only be able to vote, but also to access the other benefits of becoming a U.S. citizen, said Ko. These include protection from deportation, the ability to travel freely, and access to better job opportunities and income potential.
Taking the step to become a U.S. citizen is a “win-win, for the people, but also for the city,” said Zulma Maciel, assistant to the city manager at the City of San Jose Office of Immigrant Affairs.
Research shows that when someone becomes a U.S. citizen, their income increases by an average of 8 to 11 percent. Greater earnings have a multiplier effect and stimulate the economy, she said, from increased payroll taxes to greater spending power.
“San Jose’s vitality is derived from our large immigrant population,” said Maciel, “and when immigrants become citizens, they invest in the community.”
Next month, the city kicks off a public outreach campaign to encourage legal permanent residents to become U.S. citizens. Through partnerships with local libraries, they are creating “citizenship corners” with materials to educate people about the citizenship process.
“The greatest barrier to citizenship is that fear factor,” said Kramar. “That’s why demystifying the process is important to us.”
Residents who want help with their applications can go to free citizenship workshops – in San Jose and in cities around the Bay Area – where legal service providers are available to assist them in multiple languages.
Those who want to take the first step on their own can fill out their application at CitizenshipWorks.org, a free online tool. It is currently available in English and Spanish, with other languages coming soon.
The New Americans Workforce, a partner of the New Americans Campaign, is also working with local employers to bring citizenship clinics to worksites.
For Truong, going to a free citizenship workshop was the best way to get help. Service providers there spoke Vietnamese, and guided his family through the process to become U.S. citizens.
“It’s a really great gift,” said Truong.
The next free citizenship workshop in San Jose is:
Saturday, February 27, 2016
at Mayfair Community Center
2039 Kammerer Ave, San Jose CA 95116.
For more information, visit siren-bayarea.org.
To register, call (408) 474-0454.
For more information about the New Americans Campaign and upcoming citizenship workshops, go to www.newamericanscampaign.org.