White House launches effort to get legal permanent residents to become U.S. citizens

President Barack Obama arrives on the South Lawn of the White House after returning from a three-day trip to Alaska, on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015, in Washington.  (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Barack Obama arrives on the South Lawn of the White House after returning from a three-day trip to Alaska, on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The White House launched a national, multilingual public awareness campaign Thursday to help almost nine million legal permanent residents overcome barriers to become U.S. citizens.

"If you are eligible, commit to become a citizen today. It is an important step for you, and an important step for our nation," said President Barack Obama in a video that launched the campaign on Citizenship Day, observed every Sept. 17. "Join us. Together we can make America to stand even stronger."

According to recent estimates, there are approximately 13.3 million legal permanent residents in the United States but only 8.8 million who are eligible to apply for citizenship. Government data show nearly one out of every three eligible individuals obtained their legal status in 1990 or earlier.

The campaign was conceived by a task force created by Obama last November, all part of a package of presidential executive actions on immigration that included expansion of the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which grants young immigrants work permits and reprieve from deportation.

The federal government's action on DACA, as well as a program that would extend deportation protections to certain parents of U.S. citizens and permanent residents, were put on hold on Feb. 16 by U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen in Brownsville, Texas.

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For the public awareness campaign, the White House said businesses and nonprofit groups plan to host more than 70 citizenship outreach events in the first week, complementing 200 ceremonies in which the federal government will welcome more than 36,000 new citizens across the country.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will begin to allow credit card payments of the $680 naturalization fee and expand its mobile services to rural communities through a new partnership with the Agriculture Department.

USCIS will also launch an online U.S. civics and history practice test, a mandatory requirement for green-card holders who want to become American citizens.

Naturalized U.S. citizens such as chef and restaurateur José Andrés, actress Diane Guerrero, singer and songwriter Dave Matthews and former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Fernando Valenzuela will participate in the campaign, called "Stand Stronger," which will also seek to increase awareness of the contributions of new Americans.

The White House said almost 20 cities have joined the initiative, including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, San Francisco, Seattle, Pittsburgh and Atlanta.

There will be in-language material available in Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean and Tagalog, and the campaign will be promoted by various media companies such as Univision, Entravision, Latina magazine and People en Español.

A White House official told the Associated Press that the Obama administration is not seeking to naturalize a specific number of legal permanent residents. The official, who requested anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak with media before the official announcement, said the campaign will not represent a significant cost because it will be paid for largely with money already available to federal agencies.

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