The New Americans
State Legislatures Magazine: July/August 2000
By Ann Morse
Editor's Note: This article appeared in the July/August 2000 issue of NCSL's magazine, State Legislatures. To subscribe contact the marketing department at (303) 364-7700.
I've always wanted to become an American," says a 103- year-old Chinese immigrant who passed her English and civics exam after studying in the Illinois naturalization program (The oldest immigrant to pass, she was given the oath of citizenship with her 85-year-old son.)
The number of applications for U.S. citizenship is astonishing: Traditionally in the range of 200,000 per year, they have soared during the 1990s. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) reviewed 1.2 million applications in 1999, and the oath of naturalization was administered to nearly 900,000 new Americans.
A confluence of factors has contributed to the increase: More than 3 million undocumented immigrants with long-term U.S. residence were given amnesty in 1986 and became eligible to apply for citizenship. An INS program to require immigrants to replace their green cards with new fraud-resistant cards, accompanied by fees comparable to naturalization, encouraged immigrants to take the extra step of naturalization. And finally, anti-immigrant provisions in the 1996 federal welfare law and California's Proposition 187 seem to have awakened noncitizens to their potentially precarious position in American society.
About a dozen state legislatures have stepped forward to encourage and support the aspirations of immigrants to become U.S. citizens. The Massachusetts legislature passed a three-year, $2 million initiative with overwhelming support in 1997 to fund a Citizenship Assistance Program for immigrant residents. The program matches state funds with contributions from private organizations, foundations and federal agencies. A statewide network of more than 100 community-based organizations provides English and civics classes as well as assistance with citizenship applications. More than 18,000 Massachusetts residents have used the program, and to date 4,300 immigrants have pledged their allegiance as new citizens of the United States. The target population includes the elderly and disabled, prompting innovative strategies such as conversation circles, stress-reduction techniques and a mix of audiotapes, flash cards and special interview curricula. When asked their reasons for becoming U.S. citizens, most immigrants in the program say that they want to vote and help their community. Students participate in Immigrant's Day to get a first-hand look at how government works, meet with legislators and discuss policies important to their community.
"More legislators need to be educated about the history of immigrants and their contributions," says Maryland Delegate Shirley Nathan-Pulliam, speaking from personal experience as an immigrant from Jamaica and naturalized citizen of the United States. "In the advent of the 1996 federal welfare and immigration laws that so negatively affected immigrants, record numbers have naturalized and registered to vote. This will have an impact on political campaigns."
Maryland has an unusually diverse immigrant population, with no single group representing more than 7 percent of the newcomer total. One of the first states to help immigrant residents naturalize, Maryland passed a citizenship promotion bill in 1995 and replicated a citizenship promotion model pioneered by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. These "one-stop-shop" events use local residents to help immigrants navigate the citizenship application and speed up processing for the INS. Not only did this endeavor bring newcomers and native born Americans together, it also assisted in building bridges among immigrant communities, which were able to share expertise and volunteers and expand public education.
Illinois has approximately 200,000 immigrants eligible for naturalization. For its citizenship programs, the state appropriated $4.3 million from 1995 to 1998, primarily for English classes and civics programs, as well as application services, interview preparation, teacher training, curriculum development and research. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which provides classes for elderly refugees from the former Soviet Union, boasts a 95 percent success rate. The bedrock of its program is community volunteers. Through its English, American history and civics classes, the program provides a "window to friendship." American senior citizens teach their peers, students majoring in Russian apply their language skills and former refugees find the opportunity to give something back for the assistance they have received. As one Chicago volunteer described the experience, "I will be so proud when they pass the citizenship exam ... however, they have given me infinitely more. They have given me a sense of history, roots and friendship." Illinois recently increased state funds for the effort to $2 million per year through 2001.
States, working with community organizations, are creating programs to teach these student-citizens the rights and responsibilities of civic participation. Beyond helping participants study for the citizenship exams, the programs actively encourage participation in local civic life - school board meetings, town halls, legislative hearings and community meetings.
For additional information, see Immigrant Policy News ... The State-Local Report, March 1996 and December 1998 at www.ncsl.org/programs/immig
Sample Questions from the Citizenship Exam
1. Why did the pilgrims come to America?
2. Name the 13 original states.
3. What were the 13 original states called?
4. Who said, "Give me liberty or give me death?"
5. When was the Declaration of Independence adopted?
6. Who was the main writer of the Declaration of Independence?
7. What is the basic belief of the Declaration of Independence?
8. What year was the Constitution written?
9. How many changes or amendments are there to the Constitution?
10. Name one right guaranteed by the first amendment.
11. What is the most important right granted to U.S. citizens?
12. Which president was the first commander in chief of the U.S. military?
13. What are the duties of Congress?
14. How many times may a congressman be reelected?
15. Who becomes president if the president and vice president should die?
16. What special group advises the president?
17. Who has the power to declare war?
18. How many Supreme Court justices are there?
19. What did the Emancipation Proclamation do?
20. Name one benefit of being a citizen of the United States.
1. For religious freedom
2. Connecticut, New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia,
North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Rhode Island, Maryland
4. Patrick Henry
5. July 4, 1776
6. Thomas Jefferson
7. That all men are created equal
10. Freedom of speech, press, religion, peaceable assembly and to request a change of government
11. The right to vote
12. George Washington
13. To make laws
14. There is no limit
15. The speaker of the House16. The cabinet
18. Freed slaves
19. To obtain a federal government job, travel with a U.S. passport, petition for close relatives to come to the U.S. to live, vote
To be eligible for U.S. naturalization, an immigrant must be at least 18 years old, be a legal permanent resident (hold a green card), have resided in the United States for five years, demonstrate English skills and knowledge of U.S. history and civics, and be of good moral character.
Ann Morse is NCSL's expert on immigration issues.
©2000, National Conference of State Legislatures. All rights reserved.