Immigration rhetoric motivating more to become citizens
By Bill Shaner
Daily News Staff
In the first quarter of the year, citizenship application rates in Massachusetts and around the country, have skyrocketed. Local experts have tied the rise, in part, to the presidential campaign and the devisive immigration rhetoric of Donald Trump.
From January through March, the most recent data available, the Office of Citizenship and Immigration Services received 7,994 applications from offices in Massachusetts, a roughly 30-percent increase over the 6,141 received in the last quarter of 2015. Applications are up 35 percent over this time last year.
“A lot of people are motivated by fear,” said Veronica Serrato, director of Project Citizenship, a Boston-based non-profit agency that helps immigrants with the citizenship process.
“The rhetoric has been dramatic. It’s increasing the fear about immigrants and what’s going to happen.”
Trump, the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee, has called for mass deportations and a border wall between the United States and Mexico. He called Mexican immigrants “murderers and rapists.” He claimed that the judge in an ongoing fraud lawsuit against Trump University is unfit to adjudicate because his Mexican descent makes him naturally biased against him.
In the wake of the Orlando nightclub massacre last Sunday that left 49 people dead, Trump re-upped his call for a total ban on immigration of Muslims.
While the anti-immigrant rhetoric has helped Trump galvanize a nationalistic base among white conservatives, it may have an unintended consequence. Experts predict more than a million new voters out of the recent surge in citizenship applications.
Immigrants in MetroWest and the Milford area going through the process confirmed the anxiety provoked by anti-immigrant rhetoric, but also cited patriotism – a desire to be a full citizen with voting rights in the country they call home.
Antonio Cabral, a 55-year-old Framingham resident, filed his application for citizenship in March.
“I want to be an American, I want to be a citizen of this country,” he said. “I was born in Brazil but I want to die here.”
It’s about a five- to seven-month wait for the application to process. He hopes he’ll get his citizenship in time for the presidential election in November.
If he gets the chance to vote, he said he’ll vote for Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presumptive nominee. Trump, he said, doesn’t seem to distinguish between the immigrants here that work and contribute to the economy and those that commit crimes.
“He doesn’t care if they’re good or not, just that they’re immigrants,” he said.
Helemarcio Batista, a 40-year-old Framingham resident and owner of a small trucking company, has a different take. When he filed for citizenship in April, the presidential race didn’t play much in his thinking. He’s committed to living here his whole life, he said. He has a daughter and wants the full “rights and obligations” that come along with citizenship.
But, while the anxiety provoked by Trump’s rhetoric doesn’t affect him personally, Batista said he sees it in his community. He said he worries about the people here without visas, who don’t have the opportunity to file for citizenship.
Indeed, those are the people most at risk if Trump is ever able to execute his plan to deport the estimated 11 million immigrants here illegally.
For immigrants without legal status, there are several visas available, but getting them isn’t a sure thing, doesn’t often provide a path to full citizenship and it can take years, said Serrato.
“Short of comprehensive immigrant reform … there’s nothing new under the sun,” she said.
But the rise in citizenship applications among visa holders is undeniable. Nationally, 252,254 people applied for citizenship from January to March, compared to 187,635 from October to December last year.
It’s something she said “could certainly have an impact” on the outcome of the presidential election.
Eva Millona, director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition said she saw a similar surge in applications when the Department of Homeland Security was created in 2002. Trump’s rise and the implementation of the DHS have provoked similar fears of deportation, she said.
On the threats Trump has made, Millona said, “Of course it’s being taken seriously. People are terrified.”
Most of the people MIRA works with say they apply for citizenship to protect themselves and their families from deportation, but there are many other reasons, said Milllona.
But, she said, there are barriers. The cost of about $680 to file an application keeps many working class people from applying. Organizations like MIRA help low-income immigrants navigate a complicated fee-waiver program.
With just under five months to election day, it’s unclear whether many of the people who recently filed for citizenship will get it in time to vote.
In Massachusetts, the voter registration deadline for mailed applications is Oct. 19 and, as application rates have soared, so has the backlog. Voters can register in person at the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s Office in Boston, or at a local elections office the day before the election.
The number of pending applications has steadily risen along with the applications received, according to Office of Citizenship and Immigration Services records.
As of March 31, the last date of available data, there were 14,324 pending applications between the two Massachusetts offices, in Lawrence and Boston. That’s up more than 2,000 from last December.
Local advocates worry the boom in applications will drag out the process for those who already applied.
“USCIS has seen an increase in naturalization applications in the last few months compared to the same time last year,” said Paula Grenier, spokeswoman. “Generally, USCIS strives to adjudicate naturalization applications within five to seven months; however, many factors can affect processing times.”
For organizations including MIRA and Project Citizenship, lag is, in a way, a good thing. It means more people are going through with the naturalization process.
But, advocates say there’s a lot of work to do.
In Massachusetts, Millona estimates there are 300,000 people eligible for citizenship who haven’t yet applied.
Bill Shaner can be reached at 508-626-3957 or at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @bill_shaner.