How Boston Encourages U.S. Citizenship

The city’s broad-scale effort helps eligible legal residents navigate the tricky and costly process of applying for citizenship.
BY MAYOR MARTIN J. WALSH

 (From left) Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Sen. Edward Markey attend an opening for a new Boston Marathon memorial exhibition at the Boston Public Library on April 7, 2014.(Darren McCollester/Getty Images)

(From left) Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Sen. Edward Markey attend an opening for a new Boston Marathon memorial exhibition at the Boston Public Library on April 7, 2014.(Darren McCollester/Getty Images)

September 24, 2014 – My parents immigrated to the United States from Ireland in the 1950s, but it was more than three decades before my mother, Mary, became a U.S. citizen. Like millions of others, my mother had to navigate a complex, challenging, and intimidating citizenship process. Moving forward through the process of becoming a U.S. citizen was difficult for her, and it remains difficult for millions of legal permanent residents today.

Right now, only about 10 percent of the nation’s 8 million legal permanent residents apply for citizenship each year. Here in Boston, immigrants make up 27 percent of our population. Of these immigrants, tens of thousands are eligible for citizenship but have yet to become citizens.

Barriers to becoming a citizen are high. Reliable legal assistance can be expensive and difficult to find. Navigating government forms and sticking with the process can be intimidating. For others, the $680 application cost can be an insurmountable financial burden. Also, some individuals need to get comfortable with the idea of permanently giving up citizenship of their country of origin, especially if they have family and friends who still reside there.
The benefits of citizenship, however, are also great. Not only are citizens able to vote, obtain a U.S. passport, and help their minor children become citizens, but research also shows that they can earn up to 11 percent more in wages over their lifetimes, and they have greater access to better-paying jobs. Not only is citizenship required for many jobs in state and federal government, but financial aid for students is more widely available for U.S. citizens. All of these elements strengthen not only our newest Americans and their families, but also our community on the whole.

In a city and a country where demographics are changing, we can do more to encourage and support our newest neighbors to become full-fledged citizens.

Because we see the importance of helping eligible immigrants overcome the anxiety in this process, the Mayor’s Office of New Bostonians, in collaboration with the Greater Boston Citizenship Initiative [Project Citizenship], marked Citizenship Day this month by hosting a broad-scale citizenship drive. At five Boston Centers for Youth & Family sites across the city, eligible legal permanent residents received assistance in completing the paperwork to apply for citizenship—at no cost to them. To be eligible, an applicant must be 18, have been a legal permanent for five years, have been physically present for five years, and demonstrate good moral character. Applicants who are married to a U.S. citizen need to have been a legal permanent resident for only three years.

Citizenship Day in Boston was a prime example of a successful public-private partnership, with city officials, dedicated volunteers, and pro bono attorneys all giving generously of their time. Volunteers from Boston’s many colleges and law schools were plentiful. Businesses donated food and water. Several ethnic media sponsors, including El Mundo, Univision, and Clear Channel, partnered with us to launch an outreach campaign.

Although workshops are nothing new to the Greater Boston Citizenship Initiative [Project Citizenship], this Citizenship Day was the first time that multiple departments within the city of Boston teamed up to offer these workshops on a grand scale. This was an opportunity for legal permanent residents across the city’s diverse neighborhoods to take an important step. I’m glad to see other cities undertaking similar efforts, too. All of us benefit when more eligible immigrants become citizens.

Encouraging American citizenship is a key step toward ensuring that hardworking immigrants are able to succeed and contribute fully to our community. Immigrants are running businesses, opening restaurants, contributing to school parenting groups, and staffing our hospitals, grocery stores, and tech start-ups. We need to encourage this involvement in order to strengthen our cities. As the son of Irish immigrants, I understand the challenges and opportunities immigrants encounter, and I am pleased our city could help people pursue their American dream. As our population continues to change in years to come, today’s new citizens—and tomorrow’s—will innovate and contribute in ways we can’t even imagine.

I am proud to lead a city that is helping make the American dream a reality for more of its residents.

Martin J. Walsh is the mayor of Boston. Prior to his election in 2013, Walsh served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives for 16 years.