Vol. 6 / No. 3 / Fall 2011  

The New Americans Citizenship Collaboration

by Andrew Geraghty, Program Assistant, National Program, Carnegie Corporation of New York

Overcoming the Challenges to Civic Participation

New citizens take the Oath of Allegiance at a naturalization ceremony in Mount Vernon, Maryland. Photo by Maurice Belanger / National Immigration Forum

Listening to the rhetoric that surrounds the ongoing immigration debate in the United States, it can be difficult to sort out the complexities of the issue that exist beyond the roughly 12 million immigrants currently in the country illegally. A lesser-known figure is that of legal permanent residents currently living in the U.S: 12.5 million. Despite having overcome what might be considered the most challenging hurdle of the naturalization process—earning permanent resident status—a large number of these individuals do not take the final step and become citizens. There are many reasons for this, among them, the process is burdensome and costly: applicants must fill out many forms, indicating when and where they have left the U.S. since becoming legal residents; they must be fingerprinted and pass a background check from the FBI; and they must pass English and civics tests. Finally, they must be interviewed in person. The entire process can take several years and cost $680 in application fees.

Without citizenship, individuals and families remain in limbo, residents of a country in which they cannot participate in the civic process: vote, serve on juries, or run for elected office. Legal permanent residents, 8.2 million of whom are currently eligible to naturalize, are not the only ones missing an opportunity. As Andrew Carnegie noted, “There is no class so intensely patriotic, so wildly devoted to the Republic as the naturalized citizen and his child…”

While the Corporation has supported naturalization services since the early 1990s, primarily as part of its ongoing work to engage marginalized populations in voting and civic life, new census data demonstrates the need for a more concerted effort to advance immigrant civic integration. The sheer size and demographic diversity of the current citizenship-eligible population in the United States, the scale of needed expansion of English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) instruction and legal services warrants a new way of working together for current naturalization nonprofit providers and funders. Recognizing this need and in collaboration with the John S. and James L. Knight and Grove Foundations and the Evelyn and Walter Hass, Jr. Fund, the Corporation launched the New Americans Citizenship Collaboration, housed at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC) in San Francisco, California.

Legal permanent residents (l) receiving assistance from volunteers (r) on their N-400 applications to become U.S. citizens during a citizenship workshop in Long Beach, CA in 2011. Photo by Naleo Educational Fund

The collaborative brings together national and local funders to support a range of immigrant-serving nonprofits which, in addition to ILRC, include Catholic Legal Immigration Services, Pro Bono Network, Immigrant Advocates Network, National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, the International Rescue Committee, the National Immigration Forum, and the Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California. The goal of the collaborative is twofold: “1) to encourage eligible legal permanent residents to become U.S. citizens and assist them with the process and 2) to increase the long-term sustainability of charitable and community-based direct legal service providers that support the naturalization process by increasing their capacity to provide services.”

To achieve the scale needed to make a real impact, the collaborative will utilize innovative approaches and technologies to train naturalization service providers and execute group processing workshops that enable providers to more efficiently carry out their work. Specifically, a piece of software—dubbed “Citizenship Works”—is being developed by several of the partners and with support from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. The software will allow processors at naturalization workshops to single out and help applicants that require special attention, such as legal assistance, while allowing other applicants to proceed more efficiently through group processing. All the application screening and form completion can be done online.

To date, the Corporation has invested $2 million in the initial fifteen-month, $4 million phase of the project. During this period, the New American Citizenship Collaboration has set a goal of naturalizing at least 8,475 individuals. In order to evaluate the success of the project, the Migration Policy Institute is developing metrics. Additionally, Doris Meissner and James Ziglar, former Commissioners of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in the Clinton Administration and the second Bush Administration, respectively, will chair a bipartisan national advisory committee for the project.

Vol. 6 / No. 3 / Fall 2011