CHICAGO — A coalition of Illinois-based advocacy groups is urging immigrants to apply to become American citizens now that the state legislature has restored funding for needed services. The effort is part of the New Americans Campaign, a national campaign now in its sixth year.
The campaign has seen an uptick in citizenship applications over the last two years.
Lawful permanent residents have been known as green card holders, but a photo ID has now replaced the green card. The card must be renewed 10 years from the date of issue.
The coalition of immigrant groups, representing Mexican, Chinese, Korean, Polish, African and Arab communities, met in the Chicago headquarters of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, which provides information on immigrant and refugee-related policies.
Illinois is home to 1.8 million immigrants who comprise 14 percent of the state’s population. There are some 385,000 lawful permanent residents in Chicago alone who are eligible to naturalize, out of an estimated 525,000 in Illinois.
The Road to Citizenship
Speakers outlined some of the roadblocks that could prevent lawful permanent residents from applying for citizenship.
These barriers include a lack of proficiency in the English language great enough to make it difficult to pass the citizenship exam, which is written in English.
But green card holders over the age of 50 who have lived in the United States 20 years or longer are exempt from the English-language requirement, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. This is called the “50/20” exception.
Green card holders who are 55 or older and have lived in the U.S. 15 years are also exempt from taking the citizenship test in English. This is called the “55/15” exception.
Coalition members offer green card holders classes in English to improve their language skills so they can take the citizenship test when they are younger.
Another hurdle is the $725 naturalization fee, which includes a $640 citizenship application fee and an $85 fee for a background check.
If immigrants don’t have adequate funds to meet these costs, there are ways to get around them.
Green card holders can charge the fee to a credit card or they can request a fee waiver by going online to the USCIS fee waiver page.
Look To Immigrant Organizations for Sound Advice
Nam Kyu Kim, who works with the Korean community, said he must take great care making sure constituents understand what is needed to become a citizen.
“I tell them they just can’t talk to a neighbor or someone with whom they attend church to get the correct answers,” Kim explained.
He also works to educate them about how to make use of online resources.
When they go online to contact a government agency, they must reach an agency like the Department of Justice whose last three letters are .gov, the official site of a government agency, not .com, which is a commercial enterprise. ICIRR also reminds immigrants that notary publics are not lawyers.
Cindy Ruiz, DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) coordinator for Hispanic American Community Services (HACES), which is based in Waukegan, Illinois, said the current political landscape has frightened immigrant communities.
ICIRR urges immigrants to seek advice from nonprofit organizations and immigration attorneys about citizenship through their website.
Immigrants can also get help applying for citizenship at free workshops in Chicago and across the state.
Finally, Illinois Approves Money for Immigrant Services
The New Americans Campaign push for citizenship has become active in Illinois because the General Assembly in June 2016 restored $5.88 million in funding, a cut from previous years of $6.67 million for immigrant services. The deal helped resolve a one-year Illinois budget impasse.
The funds will assist immigrant families with language access and self-sufficiency support.
Why Become A Citizen?
Breandan Magee, senior director for ICIRR, listed many benefits for immigrants who become citizens. They include working better paying jobs, obtaining a U.S. passport, citizenship for your children, bringing family to the United States, protection from deportation, applying for government jobs and voting.
“Voting is critical to immigrants,” said Magee, explaining that a growing number of politicians are running for office to limit immigrants from moving to the United States and immigrants who are citizens can vote them out of office.
For more information about the national New Americans Campaign and upcoming citizenship workshops in your city, go to www.newamericanscampaign.org.