OPINION

Opinion: The real citizenship story

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 17:  A new U.S. citizen stands while reciting the pledge of allegiance after becoming an American citizen at a naturalization ceremony held at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), office on May 17, 2013 in New York City. One hundred and fifty immigrants from 38 different countries became U.S. citizens at the event. Some 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. stand to eventually gain American citizenship if Congress passes immigration reforms currently being negotiated in Washington D.C.  (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 17: A new U.S. citizen stands while reciting the pledge of allegiance after becoming an American citizen at a naturalization ceremony held at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), office on May 17, 2013 in New York City. One hundred and fifty immigrants from 38 different countries became U.S. citizens at the event. Some 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. stand to eventually gain American citizenship if Congress passes immigration reforms currently being negotiated in Washington D.C. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)  (2013 Getty Images)

Recently, many news outlets have reported a record spike in the number of citizenship applications this year, attributing this increase to negative campaign rhetoric around immigration.

While this narrative makes for a sexy story, it doesn’t tell the whole truth: Lawful permanent residents (LPRs) are smart enough to realize the importance of becoming U.S. citizens without being scared into doing so.

Citizenship is about so much more than immigration status or individual voting rights. It means full participation in our community and economy, which benefits us all.

- Eric Cohen

Those who choose to live permanently in the United States don’t need to be convinced of the enormous opportunities this country presents. And those opportunities are greater still for those who become citizens.

Our own research shows that a vast majority of LPRs want to become citizens, but they just don’t know how. A majority of those we recently surveyed with Bendixen & Amandi said that they’ve never even received information about the process.

What’s more, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), naturalization application numbers aren’t actually that different from previous presidential election cycles. In fact, the Bipartisan Policy Center reports that this year’s so-called citizenship surge won’t likely be as historic as the spikes seen in previous election cycles.

There are nearly 9 million LPRs eligible to become U.S. citizens today. On average, less than 10 percent naturalize each year.

Those who work in naturalization services know that this work is a marathon, not a sprint. We know that naturalization ebbs and flows in response to particular moments, whether it’s a presidential election, legislative action or changes to the citizenship process.

But these are short-term responses. LPRs are much more motivated by information on how to become a citizen and an understanding of the value of citizenship itself.

That’s where the New Americans Campaign helps. Our network of legal service providers show LPRs that the naturalization process isn’t as expensive or as difficult as they think.

But the new Americans Campaign can’t do it alone. It’s up to our government to encourage those who are eligible to become citizens to take that critical next step.

How can our government do this? It can incentivize citizenship over green card renewal, keep the cost of naturalization affordable and within reach of everyone and ensure LPRs are equipped with the information and resources to empower them to pursue citizenship.

It is a lost opportunity to not have these dedicated and committed residents as full participants in civic life in our country.

Citizenship is about so much more than immigration status or individual voting rights. It means full participation in our community and economy, which benefits us all.

Citizenship alone can boost individual earnings by 8 to 11 percent, which benefits families, communities and the nation as a whole.

Depending on how aggressively we promote naturalization, our national economy stands to grow by $21 billion to $45 billion over 10 years.

The New Americans Campaign will celebrate its fifth year next month. And while we’ll celebrate the over 200,000 new Americans we helped to become U.S. citizens and the innovative partnerships we’ve forged to achieve success, we also look ahead to the work yet to be done. 

We know immigrants are hungry for citizenship information. Now is the time to be proactive and share it.

Let’s not give credit to those who disparage immigrants. The benefits of citizenship are clear and the desire is high — now let’s help our LPRs achieve it.

Eric Cohen is the executive director of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in San Francisco, which leads the New Americans Campaign, a network that promotes immigrant integration through citizenship. 

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