President Trump’s executive orders so far have targeted unauthorized immigrants, refugees, plus visa holders from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
“It’s a good assumption,” Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said at the Munich Security Conference on Feb. 18, that green card holders — or legal permanent residents — will not be affected by the revised travel ban Trump is expected to announce this week.
But Alondra Juarez, a green card holder in Los Angeles, says she’s not taking any chances. On a recent morning, she was one of dozens of lined up outside the office of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, or CHIRLA.
She had come before, but she turned back after she saw long lines.
“I want to say this is my sixth attempt,” said Juarez, a 29-year-old social worker who’s lived in L.A. for more than two decades.
She heard that CHIRLA was offering free help with citizenship applications during Trump’s first 100 days in office. Jaurez says she was troubled by Trump’s executive order that temporarily banned travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
“The Muslim ban was an eye-opener because if you do ask a lot of Latinos with resident cards, they’ll tell you, ‘OK, first it was Muslims, and next, who’s on the list? The Latinos, Hispanic population,’ ” she said.
Green card holders can apply for citizenship after staying in the U.S. for at least five years. But historically, close to 40 percent of those eligible for citizenship — or about 10 million people — choose to keep their green cards, according to the latest estimate by the Pew Research Center.
While the travel ban has been put on hold by the courts, the uncertainty of Trump’s immigration policies is keeping immigrants on edge. Many green card holders are now flocking to apply for citizenship, including Vera Mayorga.
Standing on the sidewalk outside CHIRLA’s office, she said her mother, Dina, is concerned about more changes in immigration policy and feels that getting citizenship is the best insurance against being deported back to Guatemala.
“She doesn’t want to go back,” Vera said.
“This is scary because here is my life,” Dina added. “My daughter’s going to school here.”
After CHIRLA staffers opened their office doors, the Mayorgas and other green card holders streamed inside to start filling out intake forms. There were so many people crammed into the room, more chairs had to be brought in. Smiles broke across nervous faces as a staffer welcomed them in Spanish.
“We used to see two to three people a week seeking citizenship services. Now we are seeing between 30 and 50 people a day,” says Jorge-Mario Cabrera, CHIRLA’S director of communications.
He says his organization hopes this recent rush for citizenship will eventually result in more new voters at the polls.
The right to vote and a U.S. passport are some of the top incentives for applying for citizenship. But there are also plenty of barriers that discourage some green card holders, including misinformation about the application process.
“What we want is to provide folks with the right information so that they don’t end up at notarios and fraudulent attorneys that will take their money, wreck their lives and run away from it all,” Cabrera says.
Allan Wernick, an immigration attorney who runs the City University of New York’s Citizenship Now! program, has also seen a significant increase in green card holders seeking citizenship.
In the past, he says, some people have been intimidated by having to pass an English test and an exam about U.S history and government. Another challenge has been the fees, which can total as much as $725 to file the application for naturalization and to pay for the required fingerprinting and other biometric collection.
“Not everyone understands that if you’re indigent or low-income, you can get a waiver of that filing fee,” Wernick explains.
Presidential election cycles generally boost the number of citizenship applications. Last year was no exception. Through September, application numbers were up more than 24 percent over the previous fiscal year.
Amir, a green card holder from Iran who lives in California’s Orange County, submitted his application for naturalization a few weeks before Trump’s inauguration
He asked NPR not to use his last name because he’s worried that speaking out might affect his application.
He says he was shocked that green card holders from Iran and the six other mainly Muslim countries affected by the travel ban were initially not allowed to return to the U.S. after Trump signed his executive order on Jan. 27. The White House counsel eventually issued a statement saying that green card holders are exempt from the travel ban.
Still, the confusion brought up a lot of questions for Amir.
“What if I happened to be outside of the country and wanted to come back?” he wondered.
“This is home. I mean, I own a house here. I have no other place to go,” he says. “I’m here as an asylee and as a gay man. There’s not a lot of welcoming in Iran for me.”
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services says Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order would not affect how they review citizenship applications.
Meanwhile, Amir hopes he’ll soon be able to take his oath of allegiance and become a U.S. citizen.
With the surge of applications, the wait may be longer than usual.
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