Skip to Content

With Legal Aid, Immigrant Advocates Turn Focus to Citizenship

27 Nov

This election season, Sandra Ocampo is running her own campaign.

Last week, Ms. Ocampo, 21, who immigrated from Nicaragua to Yonkers five years ago, showed up at a citizenship drive sponsored by the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights in Inwood.

After having her photo taken at a nearby travel agency, Ms. Ocampo did a celebratory dance.

“Sandra’s going to be an American citizen,” she said in Spanish. “Donald Trump, you are not going to win.”

With anti-immigrant sentiment soaring among Republican presidential candidates, and immigration reform stalled in Congress and the courts, New York advocacy groups, with the support of the Obama administration, are redoubling their efforts in one area they can control: citizenship. They are pushing to convert as many of the country’s 8.8 million green card holders as possible into naturalized Americans.

The influence of the Latino voting bloc has added impetus to the drive. According to Latino Decisions, a polling and research firm, 80 percent of naturalized Latino citizens voted for President Obama in 2012. In New York State, there are approximately 915,000 legal permanent residents, more than 317,400 of whom are Latino, according to the Center for Migration Studies.

Nationally, nearly a third of legal permanent residents eligible to become citizens are Mexicans, a particular target of Mr. Trump, a Republican presidential candidate who has accused them of bringing drugs and crime into the United States and of being rapists.

This month, there were 14 citizenship events across the city compared with the usual eight, according to local advocacy groups. The events were held at college campuses, union headquarters, libraries, hospitals and the offices of community organizations in Hispanic and Asian neighborhoods. They were timed to the anniversary of President Obama’s executive actions allowing undocumented parents of American citizens to remain in the country legally, at least temporarily, and expanding the existing program for immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children. Those policies have been blocked by legal challenges.

“There’s something in the air saying that they’re coming for you, and that you better get as solid as you can,” said Allan Wernick, the director and co-founder of CUNY Citizenship Now, a legal assistance program operated across the City University of New York system.

Mr. Wernick said that the CUNY citizenship clinics were fully booked — at 130 spots — in November, with no room for walk-ins as there was just six months ago.

Around this time last year, groups like CUNY Citizenship Now and the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights had prepared for a crush of applicants eligible for one of Mr. Obama’s programs. But when the executive actions were stopped by court injunction, the crowds never came.

A recent ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit on the programs, which the Supreme Court could take up next year, spurred immigrant advocacy groups to mobilize.

“There was a concerted effort around the anniversary anyway, and the fact that the ruling came out the week before the anniversary only added to the interest,” said Roberto Frugone, the Northeast regional director for civic engagement at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, or Naleo.

On a recent Saturday, Naleo sponsored an event with Unite Here Local 100, a union for hospitality and food-service workers in New York and New Jersey. The New York Immigration Coalition provided legal support. A total of 96 green card holders applied to start the citizenship process at a fair in the Manhattan offices of the union, which billed the event as a “response to the Fifth Circuit Court’s decision.”

Tahisha Bourdier, 25, is a paralegal who was volunteering at the event and also applying for citizenship. She moved to New York from the Dominican Republic when she was 2. As a legal permanent resident, she said, she cannot get government jobs or even be a notary.

“I feel like I have a lot of family members who have been deported through being immigrants and I think it will eventually get as hard for a legal resident,” she said.

The presidential campaign was another factor in her decision. “Now I feel like it’s a must,” she said. “Every vote is a voice.”

In the end, though, only 38 of the day’s applicants were able to move forward, Mr. Frugone said. Most of the others were not proficient enough in English to pass the citizenship exam, which requires an applicant to answer basic questions orally, write a sentence and pass a civics test.

Some older immigrants who have not learned English wait for the precise moment when they have lived in the United States for 20 years and are older than 50; at that point, they can take the test in their own language.

Jose Miguel Toledo Madera, 53, a resident of Washington Heights in Manhattan, said he had been too busy working as a custodian to learn English. After six hours at the Unite Here citizenship drive, he finally finished his application by taking photos.

In addition to supporting registration drives, the government appears to have sped up the processing time for applications in New York City, according to several immigration lawyers. Those applications, the lawyers said, were being processed in two to three months, less than the national average of five months and faster than the six to 12 months it took just four years ago.

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services said it could not confirm the accelerated application times in New York, but it did describe how, since September, it had expanded programs to promote citizenship, including online test preparation materials and the option to pay the $680 fee by credit card.

The Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights started its Citizenship Thursdays program in April, in response to the legal challenges to Mr. Obama’s executive orders. Since then, it has helped nearly 400 people seeking naturalization assistance. In November alone, 90 applicants came in, twice the number from a year earlier.

The drives have brought together a diverse group of immigrants from Africa, the Middle East and Latin America, representing a wide range of ages. But they are united in purpose.

“I want to vote so that we can have a better situation in the country for all the immigrants, for all the people we actually need in this country,” Dinelsa Quezada Martinez, 70, said in Spanish in the organization’s offices. “I want a president that’s really going to worry and take care of our country and all the people in this country.”