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Immigration agency taps community leaders to promote citizenship

‘Ambassadors’ will encourage naturalization applications

New citizens are sworn in during a naturalization ceremony at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Charlottesville, Va., on July 4, 2021.
New citizens are sworn in during a naturalization ceremony at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Charlottesville, Va., on July 4, 2021. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has tapped eight advocates and community leaders across the country to encourage millions of green card holders to apply for citizenship, as part of an initiative set to roll out Tuesday.

A USCIS official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share details about the effort, said the eight citizenship ambassadors, most of whom are naturalized citizens themselves, will receive training from the agency on the citizenship process and will partner with local field offices to improve outreach to immigrant communities.

The ambassadors, who are unpaid volunteers, may participate in USCIS-sponsored events and publish opinion pieces in foreign language publications encouraging immigrants to apply for citizenship, among other outreach activities, the official said.

Field offices “do a lot of outreach in their own right,” the official said, but “they can only be in certain places throughout the year.”

“Having this extra volunteer corps that can really help us get the word out, from our perspective, is really going to help us build up our naturalization promotion outreach work even further,” the official continued.

There are more than 9 million permanent residents in the United States who may be eligible for citizenship, according to USCIS.

USCIS Director Ur Jaddou described the initiative as “a positive step towards raising awareness of the many benefits of U.S. citizenship and providing tools that help immigrants become successful as they embark on their journey as new citizens and beyond.”

“Granting citizenship is vital to our nation’s economic prosperity, and a future built on America’s promise as a nation of welcome and possibility,” Jaddou said in a statement.

The agency initiative follows President Joe Biden’s February 2021 executive order instructing officials to develop a “strategy to promote naturalization.”

Last summer, USCIS released an “Interagency Strategy for Promoting Naturalization,” a 13-page document that outlined the agency’s plans to endorse naturalization, including by partnering with organizations that cater to immigrant communities.

Jaddou is scheduled to meet virtually with the eight ambassadors Tuesday ahead of an event to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the naturalization strategy.

According to the USCIS official, the ambassadors were selected for their roles based on various factors, including their work in the immigration space and “personal stories and connections to the naturalization experience.” The agency also considered their locations in communities where there are large numbers of immigrants who may be eligible for citizenship but fewer nongovernmental resources.

Three of the ambassadors are located in California and two are based in Texas, while the other three reside in Miami, Minneapolis and Boston.

One ambassador, Nam Loc Nguyen, who previously served as the director of the immigration and refugee department at Catholic Charities in California, said he sees his role as an opportunity to provide more updated information to immigrants in his community that comes directly from the agency.

A refugee from Vietnam who became a U.S. citizen more than four decades ago, he said people with existing ties to immigrant communities are particularly well suited to educate community members about citizenship resources.

“We are the community leaders,” he said. “They know us, and I think naturally, they’re looking for someone that they trust.”

He added that many immigrants who are hesitant to apply for citizenship lack confidence about their understanding of English-language materials and ability to pass the required tests. They also may need information about fee waiver eligibility.

The initiative marks the Biden administration’s latest effort to reverse the prior administration’s cuts to the legal immigration system.

The Trump administration issued a rule aimed at making it harder for low-income immigrants to qualify for green cards, which the Biden administration dropped through court settlements. The Trump administration also attempted to nearly double the application fee for green card holders hoping to naturalize, from $640 to $1,170, but a federal judge struck down the effort.

Biden administration officials have said they are planning to release their own rule increasing immigration application fees. The USCIS official said this process is “ongoing” and declined to provide specifics on what the proposed fees for citizenship would be.

Even as the administration aims to promote naturalization, the agency has faced a lengthy backlog of citizenship requests. The Government Accountability Office found in a 2021 report that the agency’s pending caseload of naturalization applications more than doubled between fiscal years 2015 and 2020.

According to the USCIS website, immigrants typically wait more than a year for decisions in their naturalization applications, although exact wait times vary by location.

Jaddou has pledged to make reducing these backlogs a key priority. Earlier this year, the agency released new internal goals aiming to process citizenship applications in six months.

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