On a recent Friday morning, a Yemeni-American community center in Hamtramck buzzed with the chatter of attorneys questioning immigrants about whether they are eligible to become U.S. citizens.
“Do you speak English?” immigration attorney Melanie Goldberg asked an immigrant from Yemen, since basic English skills are required to pass the citizenship exam. “Do you have your driver’s license and your green card?”
Suad Obaid, 38, of Hamtramck, replied in Arabic through a translator her English wasn’t that good. She said she is taking English classes, and hopes to improve.
The scene in April inside the Yemeni-American Leadership Association’s center is part of a series of ongoing workshops organized by local immigrant and advocacy groups to encourage immigrants in Michigan to become U.S. citizens.
In recent months, the Detroit New Americans Campaign has been holding informational sessions and workshops with attorneys across southeastern Michigan, from Detroit mosques to Hindu temples in Pontiac to Bangladeshi-American centers in Hamtramck. They’re working with Chaldean, South Asian-American, Latino, and Arab-American groups to reach out in the areas where immigrants eligible for citizenship live and encourage them to apply.
“You are all the ones who are going to build the great new America,” Pavan Vangipuram, the regional community coordinator for Detroit New Americans Campaign, told a crowd of immigrants at a Bangladeshi-American center on Conant Ave. in Hamtramck on a cold Sunday night in January. “Let’s make 2019 the year of naturalization!”
In Michigan, there are more than 200,000 legal permanent residents, often known as green-card holders; out of those, an estimated 110,000 of them qualify to become naturalized citizens, said the Detroit New Americans Campaign. Nationally, more than 8 million are eligible.
“One of Michigan’s greatest strengths is the large number of immigrants who have chosen to make their homes here,” Vangipuram said. “We see them in pretty much all aspects of the economy, they’ve contributed to our cultural landscape, they’re small business owners, engineers, doctors, scientists, they’ve really made a life here.”
Michigan citizenship applications on the rise
As the Trump administration toughens immigration enforcement, some have become anxious, with the number of people applying to become citizens increasing statewide.
Over the past four years, the number of immigrants in Michigan applying to become U.S. citizens increased 25%, from 13,186 in 2014 to 16,539 in 2018, according to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Nationally, there was an 8% increase since 2014, but the numbers applying decreased since reaching a peak of 1,023,235 in 2016.
In Michigan, the number of legal permanent residents applying to become U.S. citizens has increased 25%, from 13,186 in 2014 to 16,539 in 2018.
Out of the more than 16,539 applying in Michigan in 2018, 14,584 were approved to become citizens, an increase of 21% since 2014. And in the last three months of 2018, 4,117 immigrants applied to be U.S. citizens, up 36% from the last three months of 2014.
“There is an uncertainty, a fear of the political environment,” Yumana Dubaisi, supervising attorney at the International Institute of Metropolitan Detroit, said at the Yemeni-American center in between assisting immigrants. “We’ve seen a rush now. … Before they used to feel safer.”
Becoming a U.S. citizen has several benefits: it better protects immigrants from deportation, allows them to vote, run for office, and obtain certain government jobs that require citizenship, said advocates and government officials. Citizens can also receive certain government benefits such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) more easily, and improved health care benefits for their children.
The Trump administration has floated the idea of making it easier to deport immigrants who received government assistance by labeling them as a “public charge,” meaning someone who’s dependent on government assistance like welfare.
Another benefit of citizenship is that it allows immigrants to sponsor family members abroad to immigrate to the U.S. Political participation is also important, say advocates.
“Becoming a citizen is incredibly important because it allows the community to become fully engaged in decisions that affect the community,” Vangipuram said.
With citizenship also comes responsibilities, such as swearing allegiance to the U.S. and its constitution and serving the country when required.
In Michigan, Iraqis are by far the largest immigrant group who are becoming naturalized citizens, according to USCIS statistics from fiscal year 2017, the most recent year that has a breakdown by country.
There were 1,986 immigrants in Michigan born in Iraq who became U.S. citizens in fiscal year 2017, followed by 1,063 from India, 542 from Bangladesh, 531 from Lebanon, and 528 from Yemen, rounding out the Top 5.
Citizenship equals more freedom, involvement
Immigrant advocates say the importance of Iraqis and others becoming citizens can be seen in the case of the hundreds of Iraqis who were arrested and detained by federal immigration authorities in 2017 because they had criminal records. They were not U.S. citizens, and so are easier to deport. The ACLU had filed a lawsuit in the case, but a federal appeals court recently ruled against the Iraqi nationals.
“I think the greatest benefit of citizenship that you can have is security,” Ruby Robinson, an attorney with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, said at a workshop for community groups at the Chaldean Community Foundation in Sterling Heights, which helps Iraqi immigrants. “Once you are a citizen you cannot be deported.”
It also helps protect your children under the age of 18 because they will automatically become citizens in many cases and can help block their deportation in case they get in trouble with the law, Robinson said.
Wojciech Zolnowski, the executive director of the International Institute of Metropolitan Detroit, is an immigrant from Poland who obtained his green card and became a legal permanent resident in 2004. But for 10 years, he put off becoming a U.S. citizen until his young daughter, after learning about citizenship in school, persuaded him.
“It was never appealing to me until my daughter, who was back then nine years old, started talking about citizenship and she looked at me like, ‘What are you waiting for?'” Zolnowski told a group of Bangladeshi immigrants in Hamtramck in January. “Then I started thinking, well, why should I not?”
Zolnowski told the crowd that while there may be some in the U.S. who are anti-immigrant, there are many others who are supportive of them.
“You’re not alone,” he said. “We are here with a new American campaign to tell you that citizenship is as easy as one, two, three. You’re not alone in this process.”
In order to qualify to be a citizen, immigrants must be legal permanent residents for at least five years, or at least three years if they are married to a U.S. citizen. They also must be above 18, speak and read basic English, have good moral character, and have not lived outside of the U.S. for more than 30 months over the past five years, among other requirements.
At the April workshop in Hamtramck, attorneys and advocates explained to immigrants whether they qualified to apply and the steps they needed to take.
Hameed Alsobhi, 33, a cashier in Hamtramck who immigrated from Yemen, said he wants to become a citizen so he can vote.
Obaid said she wants more freedom to travel to her native Yemen for visits. Yemen is one of the countries on the travel ban and has an ongoing war that already makes it difficult for Yemeni-Americans to travel back and forth. Being a U.S. citizen with a passport can help better protect the traveler in some cases, say advocates.
Both Alsobhi and Obaid are working on improving their English to help take the exam, which includes questions about the U.S. government, constitution, and political system. There are 100 questions the U.S. government officials can choose to ask the immigrant, who is asked ten of them. The immigrant has to answer correctly six of them in order to become a citizen.
Questions include: What is the political party of the president now? What does the Constitution do? What is the economic system in the United States?
Goldberg, an immigration attorney with Justice for our Neighbors Michigan, told Obaid one way she could practice learning English is by conversing with her four children, who attend school in Hamtramck and know English.
Another challenge for some immigrants to become U.S. citizens is the $725 application fee. In some cases, the fee can be reduced or waived if they can show that they are poor. But the Department of Homeland Security proposed to make those waivers harder to get by tightening the qualifications to receive the waivers this year.
The number of immigrants applying for citizenship often peaks during a presidential election year. Nationally, there were 1,023,235 applying in 2016 to be citizens; that decreased to 844,121 last year. In Michigan though, the number last year was higher than in 2016.
An immigrant from Bangladesh, Md Layes Uddin, of Hamtramck, said one of the reasons he hopes to become a citizen is to travel more easily.
“Once you get your US citizenship, you can travel all over the world almost … powerful passport,” Uddin said at the forum with Bangaldeshi immigrants in Hamtramck.
Citizens can also vote and get involved politically.
“Without your citizenship,” he said, “you don’t have the whole rights, voting rights, political rights.”