Should the Government Help Eight Million Immigrants Become U.S. citizens?

More than 8 million green-card holders qualify for American citizenship. Members of Congress want to help them become citizens — and voters.

People hold up their hands during a special naturalization ceremony at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. More than 8 million legal residents are eligible for U.S. citizenship.
National Journal
July 24, 2015, 12:34 p.m.

Im­mig­rants in the United States all dream of be­com­ing Amer­ic­an cit­izens, right? Ap­par­ently not.

There are more than 8 mil­lion people who qual­i­fy for cit­izen­ship who have not taken the oath. So what’s stop­ping these green-card hold­ers from pledging al­le­gi­ance to the Amer­ic­an flag?

Con­gress and im­mig­ra­tion-policy ex­perts have been ask­ing them­selves that ques­tion.

It turns out that the biggest bar­ri­er for many im­mig­rants is their poor Eng­lish skills. Not only do they need to speak Eng­lish to pass the cit­izen­ship test, but do­ing so also would help them get bet­ter jobs and con­trib­ute to the na­tion­al tax base. Im­mig­rants also have lim­ited ac­cess to civics classes and may not un­der­stand the be­ne­fit of be­com­ing voters.

That’s why two mem­bers of Con­gress want the gov­ern­ment to get in­volved.

Tony Cárde­n­as, a Cali­for­nia Demo­crat, and Ileana Ros-Le­htin­en, a Re­pub­lic­an from South Flor­ida, in­tro­duced a bill Thursday to al­low the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to give grants to pro­grams that help in­teg­rate im­mig­rants and en­cour­age civic par­ti­cip­a­tion.

They worked on the le­gis­la­tion with the Na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation of Latino Elec­ted and Ap­poin­ted Of­fi­cials.

“We don’t have im­mig­rant policy in the United States,” says Ar­turo Var­gas, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation of Latino Elec­ted and Ap­poin­ted Of­fi­cials. “This forces the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to make sure new Amer­ic­ans are able to take ad­vant­age of the op­por­tun­it­ies that are avail­able.”

Var­gas and Cárde­n­as un­veiled the New Amer­ic­ans Suc­cess Act dur­ing a press con­fer­ence on Cap­it­ol Hill. The le­gis­la­tion al­lows the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment — spe­cific­ally, United States Cit­izen­ship and Im­mig­ra­tion Ser­vices — to ac­cept private dona­tions to fund these in­teg­ra­tion pro­grams. Grants would be giv­en to state and city gov­ern­ments to of­fer Eng­lish classes, civics classes and ca­reer de­vel­op­ment to leg­al per­man­ent res­id­ents.

The biggest obstacle for Cárde­n­as and Ros-Le­htin­en will be get­ting more Re­pub­lic­ans on board.

A sim­il­ar idea was pro­posed as part of the bi­par­tis­an im­mig­ra­tion bill craf­ted by the Sen­ate’s “Gang of Eight.” That went nowhere.

Many Re­pub­lic­ans may see this latest in­carn­a­tion as a scheme to re­gister more Demo­crat­ic voters. Green-card hold­ers can­not vote. Im­mig­rants who be­come nat­ur­al­ized cit­izens can. And the large num­ber of Latino im­mig­rants in this coun­try tend to lean Demo­crat­ic.

Mark Falzone, deputy dir­ect­or of the Na­tion­al Im­mig­ra­tion For­um, is op­tim­ist­ic. “Im­mig­rants al­ways re­mem­ber who helped them,” Falzone says. “This is polit­ic­ally be­ne­fi­cial to every­one.”

We’ll see if Re­pub­lic­ans are con­vinced.

Key points in the bill:

  • Cre­ation of a grant pro­gram for or­gan­iz­a­tions that provide cit­izen­ship and civics classes to pre­pare leg­al im­mig­rants to pass the cit­izen­ship test.
  • Cre­ation of a grant pro­gram for state and city gov­ern­ments who come up with plans to in­teg­rate loc­al im­mig­rants.
  • Al­low­ing the Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment to so­li­cit and ac­cept private dona­tions to fund these grants.
  • Waive the Eng­lish-lan­guage flu­ency re­quire­ment for seni­ors who have been liv­ing in the United States for more than 10 years.
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