LOS ANGELES – The federal government will run a national advertising campaign to encourage more immigrants to become American citizens and become more integrated into society, officials said on Wednesday.
The multilingual effort aims to reach roughly 7.9 million immigrants who are eligible to file applications to naturalize but haven't done so. Many immigrants work, raise a family and go to school while holding green cards and only think about citizenship when they need to travel or abroad or when elections roll around and they can't vote, immigration officials said.
The campaign in print, radio and digital media that will run primarily in California, New York, Florida and Texas between May 30 and Labor Day aims to put citizenship in the forefront of people's minds and give them personal stories of immigrants who have naturalized.
"You've got to create that sense of urgency, and until they've reached that sense of urgency, they'll just coast," said Nathan Stiefel, division chief of policy and programs for the Office of Citizenship at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
It is the first time the immigration agency has launched a paid advertising campaign to promote American citizenship, said Mariana Gitomer, an agency spokeswoman. The effort, which will cost $3.5 million over three years, is part of an $11 million allotment by Congress to encourage greater immigrant integration.
About 64 percent of immigrants naturalize and it takes them on average nine-and-a-half years to apply to do so, Stiefel said.
Immigration experts say many immigrants don't apply for citizenship because they fear they don't speak English well enough or because they haven't felt a pressing need to do so. But naturalization is an important step in fully integrating into a new society and enables immigrants to vote, serve on a jury and get more involved in the political process, experts said.
"I think that communities run much better — a neighborhood, a city, a county, a state, a country — when the people who live there actually have a full stake in what goes on there," said Tomas Jimenez, assistant professor of sociology at Stanford University.
More than 700,000 immigrants applied to become U.S. citizens in the last fiscal year, up 25 percent from a year earlier, according to Citizenship and Immigration Services statistics.
Immigrants may apply to become U.S. citizens if they have a green card for five years, show good moral character and pass English and civics tests. Those are married to U.S. citizens may be able to apply sooner. Citizens can vote, travel with an American passport, serve on a jury and sponsor more family members to join them in the United States.
Many immigrants lack information about the naturalization process or the materials to help them prepare, said Lauren Kielsmeier, chief of staff at Citizenship and Immigration Services. The ad campaign in English, Spanish, Chinese and Vietnamese aims to point them to a government web site where they can download naturalization application forms and materials to help them study for the citizenship test.
The campaign includes portraits of immigrants born in China, Vietnam, Mexico, Dominican Republic and the Philippines who indicate they are "proud Americans" and share snippets of their personal stories starting a business, educating their families and even running for office.
Advertisements might help reach immigrants who are on the fence about becoming citizens, said Thomas Donahoe, citizenship coordinator at the Orange Education Center in California, though he questioned whether they'd be spurred to action.
Reasons why immigrants put off applying to naturalize include competing interests in home countries that may, or may not, recognize dual citizenship. Others can't afford $680 in application-related fees.
On a day-to-day basis, many immigrants don't feel much of a difference exists between having a green card and being a citizen — except maybe when elections roll around and they can't vote.
Sonia Gomez, an administrative secretary, came to this country from Mexico when she was a year old. Ever since, she's had a green card. Except for when she visits her relatives in Mexico and needs to dig up her passport, the 39-year-old said she doesn't think much about her citizenship.
"It is a fleeting thought in my mind," said Gomez, of Orange, Calif. "It just pops up every now and then, and then it just goes away."