LOS ANGELES — Saul Montoya had his green card for 35 years before he decided to become a U.S. citizen. It was his wife Leticia, who is a U.S. citizen herself, who finally convinced him.
“My wife inspired me, saying, ‘If I leave before you, I don’t want to leave you like this,’” said Montoya.
The idea that if she died before him, he could still be vulnerable to deportation as a green card holder was enough to change his mind. He decided to apply for naturalization in March 2015. In June, he became a U.S. citizen.
Montoya, who is originally from Mexico, shared his story with over 50 ethnic media journalists and community members at Los Angeles City Hall on Thursday. The media briefing was organized by New America Media in collaboration with the New Americans Campaign, a national effort to encourage more eligible green card holders to apply for U.S. citizenship.
Alenoush Bidrousian, who became a citizen in July, came to the United States for better job opportunities that were not available to her as a woman in Iran.
“As a citizen,” she said, “there are more job opportunities, especially government jobs.”
For Manok Cha, the decision came down to her family. Cha, who was born in 1937 in the northern part of Korea and moved to Seoul with her parents as a child, said she became a citizen so she wouldn’t have to face what her parents did – being separated from their own families who remained in North Korea.
“My father and mother weren’t able to see their parents and siblings again,” she said. “At a young age, I learned the pain of family separation.”
Now Cha, who became a U.S. citizen in 2012, has petitioned for her own kids to join her in the United States.
In celebration of Citizenship Day on September 17, organizations across Los Angeles are hosting free multilingual workshops all month long to help green card holders to apply for citizenship.
“We want to make sure people know that we’re out there, we’re extending as many services as possible,” said Nasim Khansari, citizenship director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles, one of about 20 organizations in LA that form part of the New Americans Campaign. These include everything from free workshops to ESL and civic classes, pro-bono legal assistance and help applying for a fee waiver for those who can’t afford the $680 application cost.
Los Angeles – home to 800,000 green card holders who are eligible to apply for citizenship — remains the “epicenter of naturalization,” according to Linda Lopez, chief of the Office of Immigrant Affairs at the Los Angeles Mayor’s Office. And California is the leading state, home to 2.5 million eligible green card holders out of a national total of about 9 million.
That’s why the mayor’s office is partnering with local organizations that form part of the New Americans Campaign, public libraries, ethnic media and, soon, will be entering into a partnership with Los Angeles County, said Lopez.
“We are working to make sure that every person who is eligible to become a U.S. citizen does,” said Lopez, and is able to access all the benefits and rights afforded citizens – including the right to travel freely, petition family members, be protected from deportation, and vote.
Elisa Sequeira, director of national civic engagement programs for the NALEO Educational Fund, said her organization is also educating newly naturalized citizens about how to register to vote, and how to learn about laws, candidates and what’s on the ballot.
The idea, said Sequeira, is “to use citizenship not as the end of the journey but as the beginning of a journey to civic participation.” And especially when it comes to deciding on immigration laws, she said, “Who better to have a voice at the table than new citizens?”
A 2012 University of Southern California study by Manuel Pastor and Jared Sanchez found that naturalized citizens are less likely to register to vote than their U.S.-born counterparts, but once they register, they are about equally likely to vote.
The report also found that voting rates among the newly naturalized increase during periods “charged by political tensions around immigration.”
The Trump Effect
It is too early to tell whether the inflammatory rhetoric on immigration espoused by Donald Trump and other 2016 presidential hopefuls has led to an uptick in naturalization this year.
“Through the New Americans Campaign, there has been an increase in naturalization. The fact is, immigrants want to become U.S. citizens regardless of if someone is disparaging them or not,” said Sequeira of NALEO. “But we do know that negative politics lead immigrants to be more motivated to get involved.”
In order to reach the 800,000 eligible legal permanent residents in Los Angeles County, half of whom are in the City of Los Angeles, the New Americans Campaign is calling on ethnic news media to encourage their audiences to naturalize this year.
“Our media partners have been instrumental,” Khansari of Asian Americans Advancing Justice told reporters.
Jorge Mettey, vice president of news and community outreach for TV Azteca, said the message is even stronger when it comes from all media, in all languages, with one voice – to encourage more people to become U.S. citizens this year.
“Imagine if all of us worked together, the power of that message,” he said. “Imagine having the Indonesian, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Iranian, Latino media with the same message – that would be powerful.”
For more information about the New Americans Campaign and upcoming citizenship workshops, go to www.newamericanscampaign.org.