Why Haven’t 8 Million Eligible Immigrants Become U.S. Citizens?

nisha agarwal

Nisha Agarwal, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, speaking at the roundtable on citizenship; photo by Jennifer Lehman for Voices of NY

By Jennifer Lehman, originally published by Voices of NY.

8 million immigrants across the country are eligible for U.S. citizenship but have not yet applied. A disproportionate number, nearly 2 million, live in New York City.

On June 30, immigration advocates highlighted the obstacles these potential new citizens face, and some possible solutions, in a roundtable event held at the headquarters of the International Rescue Committee.

The roundtable was hosted by New America Media, which partners with, and advocates for, ethnic media outlets.

The media organization is bringing to the attention of ethnic media the efforts of The New Americans Campaign, a nonprofit national network that has been organizing and educating immigrants on the citizenship process and its benefits since 2011.

“It’s hard work to get people to know that citizenship is possible,” said Sandy Close, executive director of New America Media.

Despite the benefits of U.S. citizenship – the right to vote, run for office, hold some federal government positions, access to a U.S. passport – many eligible immigrants do not apply because of complex applications, the high cost of applying and confusion about the consequences for those who may want to retain citizenship in their country of origin.

Check out our podcast: The Road Not Taken — Millions of Immigrants Could Apply for Citizenship, But Haven’t

Though there has been an uptick of citizenship applications nationally and in New York City recently, only 8 percent of those eligible across the country are applying, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

“I can tell you that the numbers are tremendously low,” said Angela Fernandez, executive director of the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights, a nonprofit that has been offering immigrant services for three decades in New York.

The application form has recently been simplified. While the new form is double the length, immigration advocates say it’s easier for applicants to understand and complete than the previous form.

A citizenship application now costs $680 and that “is a true, true barrier,” Fernandez said.

Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation and the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation.

AboutFeet in Two Worlds
Feet in 2 Worlds (Fi2W) is an independent media outlet, journalism training program, and launchpad for emerging immigrant journalists and media makers of color. Our work brings positive and meaningful change to America's newsrooms and has a broader impact on how immigration is reported and the ethnic and racial composition of news organizations.