Biden to green card holders: Come join us
The president hopes to encourage legal permanent residents to become citizens
On a rainy Wednesday afternoon at Hope Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas, Elaine Adams, 72, is describing the Supreme Court to an octogenarian couple from Iran. The two Iranians immigrated to Texas 16 years ago to live near their daughter and granddaughter. Two children still live in Iran. The wife used to teach high school biology; sometimes she brings baked goods to class. Her husband was an architect. He now fills his days with oil painting and recently created a portrait of Adams.
After reviewing the three branches of government, Adams shows the couple a sample N-400 application, the 21-page document required for citizenship. The real version costs each applicant up to $725 and can take months to process. Adams explains Section 12, made up of 50 questions about taxes, voting, past group membership, criminal background, moral conduct, and more. She defines confusing terms on a whiteboard: “non-U.S. resident,” “incompetent,” “confined,” “overdue,” “totalitarian.”
Legal permanent residents such as the Iranian couple are the focus of the Biden administration’s push to ease access to naturalization. According to a Department of Homeland Security study, roughly 9.2 million U.S. residents qualify for citizenship but have not pursued it. The Biden administration on July 2 published a report that focuses on increasing social media engagement concerning citizenship, providing grants to libraries, museums, corporations, and community organizations, and raising awareness of citizenship options by advertising in public areas such as post offices. One specific point suggests making promotional videos to highlight the stories of other naturalized citizens and encourage future applicants.
On July 2, Biden also hosted a naturalization ceremony in the White House. He specifically recognized Sandra Lindsay, a nurse from Jamaica who battled COVID-19 in hospitals and was the first U.S. resident to receive a coronavirus vaccine. Under the new strategy, the government will widely circulate stories like Lindsay’s to encourage other legal permanent residents to apply for citizenship.
Many of the proposals in the strategy reverse former President Donald Trump’s policies. The Biden administration reinstated the 2008 version of the citizenship test and phased out the Trump administration’s 2020 citizenship test, which had more interview questions for applicants but the same passing rate. The strategy also asks agencies to “revisit” or “relaunch” some Obama-era programs.
Reaction to the Biden administration strategy is mixed. Kevin Hernandez, policy director of The Libre Initiative, a Washington-based advocacy organization, praised the Biden task force but said lack of clear communication and understaffing plague the immigration process. Elaine Adams said legal permanent residents face challenges that promotional videos can’t fix. Students must overcome practical hurdles as well as mental ones. Some of Adams’ students hold higher education degrees in their home countries but feel inadequate when speaking English. Adams started her own citizenship class in 2015 after an English as a second language student asked how she could become a citizen.
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, many citizenship classes were canceled. Adams’ group stopped meeting in March 2020 and did not resume until June of this year. Shifting to a virtual format would have been too difficult for elderly students, and some lacked reliable internet access. Many immigration offices are short-staffed or temporarily closed.
Some naturalization ceremonies went online. Others were drive-thru. Normally, ceremony officials present a recorded video from the sitting president, along with the singing of “America the Beautiful” and other patriotic messages. During the past year, new citizens simply repeated the oath of citizenship and then dispersed to avoid coronavirus infection.
Adams’ students await the day they can attend their own ceremonies, but they must pass the interview first. In separate rooms, they will answer ten questions from a list of 100. They must correctly answer six. If the interviewer decides an applicant’s English is not advanced enough, he or she can refuse citizenship, so the Iranian couple continues to practice. Once they pass the citizenship test and take their oaths, they’ll return to a party at the church and their picture pinned onto a cork bulletin board in the church classroom. The board is covered by the smiling faces of new citizens and notecards about where each one is from.
During class, Adams takes out her voter registration card and shows it to the eager students. Each review chapter brings them a step closer to attaining cards of their own, a step closer to feeling secure in the country they now call home.
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