Over the weekend, I had the privilege of volunteering at a citizenship workshop in Las Vegas, NV. The workshop, organized by a coalition of progressive organizations under the banner Why Wait 2016, is one of many being organized across the country, particularly among the Latino community.
As a second-generation American whose father immigrated to this country, the process of naturalization was always pretty vague to me. I knew that my dad took a test to become a citizen, and that he made an oath of allegiance to the United States, and that somewhere he has a certificate that says he’s a citizen. But all that happened when I was a baby, so it never really meant that much to me. We’re all Americans now, and that seemed straight-forward enough.
It turns out that becoming a citizen of the United States can be anything but straight-forward. And just because you have a green-card, doesn’t mean you’ll get that certificate in five years. In 2011, only 61 percent of those eligible became citizens. Compare that to our northern neighbor: Canada has a naturalization rate of 85 percent, the highest in the world. Efforts to mobilize the vote by increasing the numbers of those eligible to hit the ballots come election day are common – naturalization rates tend to spike up in election years. So for example, in 2008 over one million people were naturalized, but in 2009 that number dropped to around 750,000.
It’s not that there are more people who want to become citizens to vote, although that can be part of their motivation. It’s that for many legal residents, gaining citizenship is a complicated process that can be very expensive. The naturalization form itself costs nearly $700, and if you need a lawyer’s help, well then! Some people end up paying thousands of dollars trying to become citizens. Workshops like the one held in Las Vegas give these people the resources they need to complete the process – help filling out the form, access to lawyers with immigration experience, and more, for free.
This is a big deal, and for those lining up at these workshops, it’s not just about getting to vote. Citizenship is the ultimate privilege. In her book, The Birthright Lottery, Ayelet Shachar compares citizenship to property, demonstrating that citizenship is a major factor in our affluence and quality of life. In the same way that being born to a rich family makes you more likely to have access to a quality education, healthcare, and job opportunities, being born with a particular citizenship affects those same areas of life in much the same way.
Citizenship differentiates the insiders from the outsiders. It is an identity that gives you rights under the law, rights that are not always applicable to those who are simply “residents,” authorized or otherwise. It is, quite literally, the difference between being American and being a foreigner. Even now, when it can often feel like being Muslim, being Arab, makes me a permanent outsider in American society, my citizenship is the one thing I can cling to that no one can take from me. I can brandish my passport and proclaim loudly that no matter what anyone says, no matter what they do, I am American.
Think about it. Have you ever had that feeling? That feeling has sustained me and boosted my confidence so many times. So many people all over this country are denied that feeling, even though they are legally entitled to it. At the workshop, I met a man who has lived in this country for 27 years – longer than I’ve been alive! – and is only now applying for citizenship. This is a man who works here and has had three children here. I can’t imagine having lived a lifetime in a country and not having that feeling. Legal permanent residents, by the way, can be deported – the American Immigration Council notes that 68 percent of deported legal residents are deported for minor, nonviolent crimes, things like nonviolent drug offenses and tax evasion.
I have hope that everyone who attended the Las Vegas workshop on Saturday, and everyone who attends citizenship workshops all over the country, will successfully become American citizens by the time the November elections come around. Not just because they’ll be able to vote, but because their very presence as citizens makes our country a more just place to live.