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'A sense of belonging': Organizations work to help immigrants become U.S. citizens

Immigrants get help filling out their citizenship application at a North Carolina Asian Americans Together naturalization workshop in March of 2019.
Immigrants get help filling out their citizenship application at a North Carolina Asian Americans Together naturalization workshop in March of 2019.

There are more than 9 million legal , permanent residents in the U nited S tates who are eligible to apply for citizenship, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

But a lack of information and barriers su ch as l anguage and ti me req uired discourage these green card holders from taking the last step toward naturalization.

“It's this fear of a system they're not familiar with, and not wanting to do anything wrong,” said Chavi Koneru, founder of North Carolina Asian Americans Together .

Her group is working with national organizat ions such as New Ame ricans Cam paign to make applying for citizenship more accessible.

“Attaining citizenship for many people, gives them the sense of belonging and this sense of really having arrived,” Koneru said.

Koneru says she started the organization five years ago in hopes of supporting North Carolina’s Asian residents.

“Citizenship allows our community to have that equal voice. It allows folks to exert control over what's happening in their family and their community,” Koneru said. “It allows them to vote for representation that actually takes into account their needs.”

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Citizenship is required to vote and run for federal office. But beside political power, there are also economic benefits to naturalization.

According to a study from the University of Southern California, becoming a citizen can increase income by up to 11% every year.

Yet the Center for Migration Studies says there are more than 26,000 immigrants in Mecklenburg County who are eligible to apply for citizenship but haven’t.

“The biggest challenge is really access to information about the process,” said Juan Rosa, the National Director of Civic Engagement at NALEO Educational Fund, a nonpartisan Latino advocacy organization . “The process can be very time - consuming.”

To apply for citizenship, legal , permanent residents have to fill out a lengthy form online, attend an interview and take an English and civics exam. They also have to pay a $640 filing fee and another $85 for biometrics where fingerprints and photos are ta ken.

It can also take more than a year to complete the process. So , renewing a green card every 10 years for around $540 is sometimes more appealing simply for its ease.

“People don't don't have information about who can help them in the community,” Rosa said.

That’s where the New Americans Campaign steps in. The program partners with local and national organizations with the goal of helping people become citizens.

The initiative launched 10 years ago and has helped a bout 500,000 people become citizens so far.

Most recently, the Knight Foundation, one of the partners, committed $1.5 million to seven cities , including Charlotte. Lilian Coral, the director for national strategy at the Knight Foundation , says the organization hopes these funds will help target 350 citizenship applications in North Carolina this year.

“So even though it's New Americans, I just emphasize these are often individuals who have lived in the country for so long and have already been a part of the process, but for whatever reason, haven't taken that last step,” Coral said.

Five organizations in the state are a part of the initiative: The Latin American Coalition, the Southeast Asian Coalition, NALEO Educational Fund, Catholic Charities Diocese of Charlotte and North Carolina Asian Americans Together.

“We've been able to help people who have been eligible for citizenship for over a decade and just haven't had that support getting through the process,” Koneru said.

Koneru says the organization hosts online and in person naturalization workshops for any immigrant eligible for citizenship. They provide assistance with filling out the application, submitting fee waiver forms and getting people prepared for the interview and civics test.

“We help them actually complete the process,” Koneru said. “And then we also provide a free legal review before they send their application out.”

North Carolina Asian Americans Together is hosting an outdoor, in-person workshop at 711 Hillsborough St. in Raleigh on Nov. 6 at 10 a.m. The deadline to register on the organization’s website is Oct. 22. The group will also have online appointments between Oct. 17 - Oct. 31. Registration for those is open until Oct. 18.

Copyright 2021 WFAE. To see more, visit WFAE.

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