The number of immigrants becoming American citizens is on the rise. In Charlotte and across the country, applications for citizenship have spiked as the election approaches, according to federal data. That’s not unusual in presidential election years. But in North Carolina, the increases are in fact the continuation of a trend that started five years ago. WFAE’s Michael Tomsic explores what’s driving more immigrants to become Americans.
After nearly 35 years in the U.S., Long Lee finalized his application for citizenship in March. The immigrant from Laos is clear about his motivation.
“I understand that there's benefits to becoming an American - most important is to vote, to pick out the right person to run for the job,” he says. “That's most important to me.”
You hear that again and again at citizenship workshops in North Carolina, whether they’re focused on Southeast Asians or Latin Americans.
“I want to make my vote this year,” says Patricia Torres from Colombia. Volunteers with the Latin American Coalition helped her and about 30 others finish their applications at a church in east Charlotte recently.
While it takes five years of residency before you can apply for citizenship, once you do, the process is pretty fast. It can take as little as four months.
Nationwide, applications are up about 15 percent over the most recent six months compared to the same period a year ago, according to federal data. Applications are up in Charlotte and Raleigh as well.
Torres has her own theory for why that is: anti-immigrant rhetoric among some presidential candidates.
“Especially Trump, I really don't agree with what he says,” Torres says. “I really want to make my vote that he don't be president.”
Donald Trump has described Mexican immigrants as rapists, called for a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. and vowed to greatly expand deportations.
His candidacy certainly could be a factor in applications increasing. But researchers point out there have been spikes around other presidential elections, and it’s too early to tell how this one stacks up.
In North Carolina, naturalizations have been trending up since 2010. Melissa Rodgers is director of the New Americans Campaign, a national coalition of religious organizations, businesses and advocacy groups.
“We’re working with lawful permanent residents, meaning green card holders who are eligible to become U.S. citizens,” Rodgers says.
They have to demonstrate they can read, write and speak English, as well as pass a basic test on U.S. history and government.
The New Americans Campaign launched in 2011 and focuses on Charlotte and 17 other cities nationwide. The NALEO Educational Fund has also stepped up citizenship services. The fund’s Juliana Cabrales says they’re making progress in cities, but rural areas are a bigger challenge.
“We do work in Florida, Texas, New York state, and California, and yeah, we're located in most of the metro areas, but as we move away from the center - the downtowns and the central locations - it's harder and harder to get services and help people,” she says.
That leads to another reason more people are becoming Americans: better outreach.
Immigrants walked up a winding, gravel driveway in the countryside of Morganton a few weeks ago. They were heading to a barn where the Southeast Asian Coalition hosted a citizenship workshop.
A volunteer spoke Hmong with Vu Yang, who lives in a tiny town in about 20 minutes away. There’s a large Hmong community around Hickory, mostly from Laos and Thailand.
Yang came to America in 1980. There’s a simple reason it’s taken him decades to start this process.
“Situation is we just don't know exactly how we can find a program or the citizenship, and that's why we just don't know what to do, so we just wait and wait until now,” he says.
Yang was among about 25 immigrants who came to this workshop. Ong Vang coordinated it for the Southeast Asian Coalition. She’s Hmong herself and says there’s widespread interest in citizenship.
“It's just the trust issue and then just the lack of resources,” Vang says.
She says volunteers spread the word by setting up at a flea market, making phone calls and even knocking on doors.
But as efforts like those increase, and citizenship along with them, about a third of eligible immigrants nationwide still haven’t become citizens, according to the Pew Research Center. The exact percentage varies by country of origin, with Mexico having the lowest percentage of immigrants-turned-Americans.
In Charlotte, Maritza Solano hears why through her work at the Latin American Coalition.
“Usually the main reason is the language barrier and also the financial situation,” Solano says.
The fee to become a citizen is $680, and some people end up paying lawyers $1,000 to $2,000 for help with the application. Solano says many immigrants don’t realize they can avoid those costs by taking advantage of free services and fee waivers.
That’s what Jorge Beltran did. He lives in Huntersville and fits into another category of motivated immigrants: those with trouble back home.
“After I retired in Venezuela, the economical and political situation in our country was getting worse and worse and worse,” Beltran says. “Even the personal security is terrible down there. You know when you leave your house, but you (don’t) know if you'll return to your house. And I decided if I’m this old, I don’t want to lose my life.”
Beltran, his wife and four children have all become U.S. citizens.
There are also immigrants motivated by trouble here. Henry Murillo is a Colombian who became a citizen last year.
“As soon I can do it, I said I had to become to be a citizen because we see a lot of problems here inside of the country with immigrants,” Murillo says.
Murillo hasn’t had much trouble himself – he had a green card before becoming a citizen. But he has friends who are in the country illegally, and he says they live with poor job opportunities and constant fear of police and deportation.
Now that he’s a citizen, Murillo wants to do what he can to change that. He says he’ll start at the voting booth.