U.S. citizenship applications soar

By Natasha Ishak

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Like most Americans, a typical day for Gerson Da Cruz, 27, starts with an early morning commute to work, followed by a run to school to pick up the kids, errands and chores around the house and culminates around the dinner table with family. Unlike some Americans, however, Da Cruz was not born in the U.S.

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Da Cruz at home with his 2-year-old nephew Marvin. Unlike his uncle, Marvin was born in the U.S. Photo by Natasha Ishak.

Da Cruz moved to the U.S., more than 3,000 miles away from his African homeland of Cape Verde, when he was 15. His father married a U.S. native, so he was able to receive his American citizenship by naturalization through his father. The then-teenager not only went through a huge cultural adjustment but also had to overcome a language barrier.

“It was tough in the beginning,” admitted Da Cruz, who now works as a team leader at a large organic foods retailer. “You know, at times you feel like people are mistreating you for sure. Like, they would say things and you know you can’t understand them. And they look at you like you’re stupid.” After three years of trying to fit into American society, Da Cruz, who is now fluent in English, Creole, Spanish and Portuguese, was officially naturalized as a U.S. citizen.

Da Cruz is hardly alone in his background migrating between continents. Recent data from the Migration Policy Institute shows  at least 1 million foreign-born people residing in Massachusetts in 2014.

The process of naturalization is an arduous one that can take years for some people to complete. Organizations, such as the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy (MIRA) coalition and Project Citizenship, provide support services for immigrants to navigate their way through the complex process.

The application procedure goes something like this: once eligibility for citizenship is determined, a face-to-face appointment is scheduled to discuss application requirements with the client. The client will then be signed up for a clinic or workshop where they will get assistance in filling out all necessary documents. Finally, the completed application is mailed out to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to be processed for naturalization.

“Our goal is to increase naturalization rates across New England,” said Matthew Jose, a program manager at Project Citizenship. “That’s our one mission: to help anyone who wants to apply for citizenship, regardless of economic background, geographic location, or ability to understand the process.”

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Matthew Jose (right) talks to staff at the Project Citizenship headquarters. Photo by Natasha Ishak.

Since its inception in 2011, Project Citizenship has assisted 16,211 clients from 152 different countries. Besides application assistance, services also include referrals to English or U.S. Civics classes, which selected applicants may be required to take. The organization even takes it a step further, says Jose, signing off as the Attorney of Record for each client which enables the organization to receive a legal copy of any correspondence from the USCIS regarding the client’s application. This helps keep Project Citizenship on top of each client’s case.

Da Cruz’s wife of four years, a fellow Cape Verde native, is also preparing to go through the naturalization process.

“I think it’s awesome,” said Da Cruz of the services provided for immigrants today. “I didn’t have the need for that [because parental naturalization] but I know my wife right now does English classes and she also takes citizenship classes.”

“She probably knows more about the U.S. now than I do,” he added.

In 2014, Massachusetts was home to a little over 1 million foreign-born residents, making up roughly 15 percent of the population. Some 21,608 of those foreign residents were naturalized. And that number could increase as the number of individuals applying for U.S. citizenship has steadily risen.

According to a Boston Globe report, as many as 8,000 foreign-born residents in Massachusetts had applied for citizenship between January to March of this year – a 30 percent increase compared to last year. On a nationwide scale, the uptick has been a 34 percent increase.

“We usually see a huge increase in applications every election year,” said Jose. “The last major increase we had before this election cycle was in 2012 when Obama was campaigning for re-election,” he added. “Immigrants want their voices to be heard.”