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Promoting Citizenship and Immigrant Integration

September 17, 2010 // 9:00am12:00pm
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USCIS formally awarded $8 million in federal grants to promote citizenship and immigrant-integration, at an event held at the Woodrow Wilson Center on Citizenship and Constitution Day, Friday, Sept. 17, 2010. The conjunction of Citizenship Day and Constitution Day was a doubly appropriate backdrop for discussing immigrant integration, noted Sonya Michel, director of United States Studies. It is appropriate, she said, not only to recognize citizenship itself, but the important role the Constitution plays in protecting the rights of minority groups, including immigrants.

Seventy-five organizations from 27 states were recognized as part of the agency's Citizenship and Integration Grant Program, USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas said. Recipient programs, he said, are in operation in the 10 U.S. states with the largest citizenship-eligible permanent resident populations (California, New York, Texas, Florida, New Jersey, Illinois, Massachusetts, Washington, Virginia, and Arizona). Taken together, the 27 grant winners will provide citizenship-education and naturalization-preparation services to more than 25,000 lawful permanent residents from more than 70 countries, he said.

The grant program is designed to build capacity to meet the increasing demand for citizenship services, including civics-based English classes, and to support those on the path toward U.S. citizenship, the USCIS director said. At a time when many states have been forced to make budget cuts to English-language and other programs that foster integration, the federal funding is "providing critical support," he said.

Rebecca Carson, Chief, Office of Citizenship, USCIS, announced at the event the launch of a new USCIS portal for naturalization applicants, located at www.uscis.gov/citizenship. Resources available on the site include information on the naturalization process and testing requirements, multilingual test preparation materials, and contact information for local citizenship resources, she said. Additionally, the site includes resources for teachers, as well as for organizations.

Panel 1: Becoming American—New Research and Analysis of Citizenship and Integration
The panel included a discussion of preliminary findings from USCIS survey research designed to measure future application levels. The research is needed for several reasons: so that agency capacities are in step with citizenship demand; to better understand why immigrants make the decision to naturalize; and to eliminate barriers on the path to naturalization, said Tiffany J. Lightbourn, Chief, Research and Evaluation Division, USCIS Office of Policy and Strategy. She added that final results of the research are scheduled for public release in fall 2010.

Katherine Benton-Cohen, former Wilson Center fellow and professor of history at Georgetown University, said that contemporary USCIS measures reflect past citizenship-promotion and immigrant-integration efforts. Benton-Cohen, who is currently researching the early 20th century Dillingham Commission, said that the commission's findings had long-term effects on U.S. policy. For example, the commission stressed that the federal government should facilitate the citizenship goals of eligible immigrants but not take an active role in recruiting new citizens.

Doris Meissner, senior fellow, Migration Policy Institute and former commissioner, Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS), congratulated USCIS for the survey research. Operationally, she said, the survey data are important for the accurate prediction of future application volumes and can be used to help agencies adapt to different scenarios. As such, Meissner stressed the need to have in place contingency plans to anticipate surges and other changes caused by increased application levels. A successful naturalization adjudication, for example, can generate "two or even up to five additional petitions," she said. Meissner added that the USCIS citizenship-promotion and immigrant-integration efforts are important since a goal of the United States should be the creation of new citizens. Additionally, such measures are "going to be more important," should other immigration-reform measures falter in the near term, she said.

Panel 2: Innovations in Immigrant Integration Programs
Mark Hetfield, Senior Vice President, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, discussed his organization's efforts to naturalize Jewish immigrants, particularly from the former USSR. He congratulated USCIS efforts for helping to integrate immigrants, and he noted that the United States admits many more refugees per year than do the European countries. He added that his organization has made special efforts to identify and offer special help to those individuals who fail the history and civics exam.

Ann Morse, Program Director, Immigrant Policy Project, National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), discussed the large recent increases in state legislation related to immigration. Citing NCSL data, she said the number of immigration-related bill introductions in statehouses rose from 570 in 2006 to 1,374 for the first half of 2010. Morse noted that while state-level enforcement initiatives are often seen in a negative light, many recent laws have been designed to protect the rights of human and sex trafficking victims, including one such law passed in Arizona this year. Morse added that the states have long played an important role in promoting integration programs, and she cited efforts in traditional immigrant states, such as New Jersey and Illinois, but also in non-traditional states, such as Missouri, North Dakota, and Tennessee.

Maria Reyes, director, YWCA Multicultural Center, YWCA of Tulsa, OK, congratulated USCIS and the award recipients, which included her organization. She discussed outreach techniques for local citizenship-service providers. She stressed that providers identify key decision-makers capable of recruiting naturalization applicants within their communities. She said this method was successful in generating citizenship interest among Russian immigrants in Tulsa after a community religious leader offered support. Reyes stressed the power of practical appeals, emphasizing to potential applicants the tangible benefits of citizenship, such as the international travel made possible by a U.S. passport. Yet she also stressed that the decision to naturalize is a "self-transformational step," requiring "an enormous amount of work."

Drafted by Robert Donnelly, Program Associate, Mexico Institute
Andrew Selee, Director, Mexico Institute. Ph: (202) 691-4088

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