USCIS grants help encourage American citizenship

Already this year, Congress has made a bipartisan show of support for aspiring American citizens.

The spending bill Congress just passed includes $2.5 million in grants to help new Americans integrate into and contribute fully to our society by becoming citizens. The funds will pay for organizations like mine to help lawful permanent residents (LPRs) learn English and civics as they prepare for the citizenship exam.

The grants are also a big step in the right direction. Last year, with no money allocated by Congress for programs like these, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services was able to cobble together funding from elsewhere within its own budget — but only 40 organizations nationwide benefited.

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My organization, Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Los Angeles (Advancing Justice - LA), was the only funding recipient in Los Angeles, home to nearly 1.6 million LPRs  who are eligible for citizenship.

With that funding, we recently launched English as a Second Language (ESL) and civics classes for the city’s Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities. Programs like these are critical because even in a place like multicultural Los Angeles, demand far outpaces supply —  there simply aren’t enough classes to serve all LPRs who need the instruction to pass the exam. And with knowledge of English and civics remaining at the core of the citizenship exam, lack of adequate services is an enormous obstacle for too many aspiring citizens.

With strong support from Congress, local organizations can do so much more to encourage citizenship, which carries with it immediate and tangible benefits. Citizens not only can vote and thereby participate fully in our democracy, but studies have shown a correlation between citizenship and increases in average income. Attaining the status benefits them and our economy while strengthening their bonds to the country they’ve made home.

For these reasons, Advancing Justice - LA and other groups have worked together to maximize the impact of resources available to help immigrants become citizens. Most recently, we have been active participants in the New Americans Campaign, a collaborative between local groups and organizations with national reach that is modernizing and streamlining access to naturalization services. (We, along with the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund serve as L.A. site leaders for the campaign.)

Here in Los Angeles, we have helped bring together the most prominent immigrant rights organizations in a local collaborative that includes 17 partners and service providers. By sharing best practices and using innovative technologies and approaches, we’ve made the citizenship process easier and less intimidating for thousands of immigrants in the Los Angeles area — and we have helped aspiring citizens complete more than 6,700 naturalization applications in the past two years.

Our work extends well beyond English and civics classes. Skype sessions, group processing workshops, and creative partnerships with libraries all have helped us provide these services where and when LPRs need them most — as has CitizenshipWorks, a website with tools to help people determine their eligibility for citizenship and the steps they would need to take.

Our work will be even more critical with the forthcoming changes to the citizenship application form, which will double in length in the next few months. We are encouraging LPRs to begin classes and start their application now, before this change. But we remain committed to helping immigrants complete the process, no matter the hurdles.

The recent allocation by Congress to support ESL and civics programs is a good start, but it barely scratches the surface relative to the need for such assistance. And as Congress considers a path to citizenship for additional immigrants, more public and private resources are needed to ensure that eligible immigrants who want to become U.S. citizens have the best chance possible to succeed.

Kwoh is president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Los Angeles, the nation’s largest civil rights and legal services organization serving Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander communities. His organization is part of the New Americans Campaign, a nationwide collaborative promoting citizen integration.