By Alex Ura, Texas Tribune
A legal permanent resident living in the United States since 1984, the 52-year-old Mexican native married, became a father of six and had steady employment, but he put off becoming a naturalized citizen until last December.
“Of course all that time we lived with the uncertainty that something could change or that they would take away our legal status,” Camacho, who works at a Wal-Mart distribution center in Houston, said in Spanish. “It’s difficult to think what that could mean for you or your family.”
Amid a heated presidential election focusing heavily on immigration, a similar uncertainty about the future of immigration policies under a new president appears to be pushing thousands of legal residents in Texas — some of whom, like Camacho, have lived here for decades — to apply for citizenship in hopes of securing their place in the country.
“To say that something is pushing them to finally conclude that process, that is the current political climate in the United States,” said Douglas Interiano of Proyecto Inmigrante in Fort Worth. “You look at those people’s faces and ask why did it take you so long for you to apply, and the reply will vary from ‘we didn’t have the money’ to ‘I am afraid that I might lose my status.’”
The fear among immigrants is rooted in the harsh immigration rhetoric that has become a staple of the 2016 presidential race. Billionaire businessman Donald Trump made headlines in June for saying Mexico is “not sending their best” to the United States, leaving the country to deal with rapists, drug dealers and other criminals. Some Republicans, like U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas lauded Trump at first. Though campaigning has become contentious between the two, Cruz still supports some of Trump’s immigration views, including a proposal to build a bigger wall between the United States and Mexico.
The number of naturalization applications submitted from Texas to the federal government is on the rise, thousands of legal permanent residents, commonly referred to as green card holders, are lining up for help at citizenship workshops and thousands more are holding up their right hands and repeating the naturalization oath at citizenship ceremonies.
It’s an uptick that’s not uncommon in presidential election years, but nonprofit workers helping legal residents apply for citizenship attribute the current application rush to a sense of fear among the immigrant community.
“They have fears that maybe they’ll lose their residency card if someone is elected or that if someone is elected it’s going to be more difficult,” said Mariana Sanchez, CEO of the Houston-based Bonding Against Adversity group, which is helping legal residents apply for citizenship. “They think, ‘We are legal residents so we better become U.S. citizens because we’ll be safe.’”
Naturalization applications from legal residents in Texas dipped slightly in the federal 2015 fiscal year compared to the year before. But applications jumped almost 14 percent in the July to September 2015 quarter — the latest federal figures available — compared to the same period in 2014.
Immigration nonprofit workers say the numbers have only continued to grow since then.
Sanchez’s group in Houston went from hosting two to three citizenship classes a month to 13 classes. At a recent workshop — where legal residents fill out their applications — 200 people piled into a local school looking for help. About 50 were turned away, but they’ve already signed up to attend a workshop next Saturday. The group is expecting up to 200 more applicants, Sanchez said.
In San Antonio, a citizenship workshop in September drew approximately 400 people — up from the 150 to 200 that normally show up, said Liliana Mireles, a regional program manager of civic engagement for the NALEO Educational Fund.
In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Proyecto Inmigrante usually helps about 1,000 legal residents apply for naturalization each year. Less than three months into 2016, the group has already helped 900, said Interiano, the group’s director.
About half of the legal residents that come through their workshops have lived in the United States for at least 15 years, Interiano said.
Almost 8.8 million legal residents in the U.S. are eligible to naturalize with about 2.7 million of them hailing from Mexico, according to federal figures.
With 1.3 million legal residents living in Texas, the state ranks third among states with the most legal residents eligible for citizenship — a figure the U.S. Department of Homeland Security puts at 950,000.
The jump in naturalization applications is not limited to Texas, and efforts to help as many legal residents as possible include dozens of workshops scheduled across the country in the next few months. But beyond securing their legal status, many legal residents are also rushing to become citizens in time to vote in the 2016 election.
“The community in general is playing close attention,” Mireles said. “They do realize that it is an election year and that they would have a strong presence as a community being able to exercise their vote.”
Questions about their ability to vote come up regularly in the naturalization process, nonprofit works say, and many new citizens immediately set out to register. While the state has no concerted effort to help newly naturalized citizens register, local groups and even some counties are stepping in, helping individuals register to vote as they leave their citizenship ceremonies.
The deadline to register in time to vote in the November election is Oct. 11. Because the naturalization process takes on average five to six months, the increased demand has led some groups to hold impromptu citizenship clinics to help get people through the process in time.
Despite the increased attention on the presidential election, it remains unclear how many new citizens will actually turn out to cast a ballot in November. Texas is home to some of the lowest voter turnout rates in the country.
But November couldn’t come soon enough for Margarita Fernandez. The 63-year-old Cuban native passed her citizenship interview earlier this week, and she’s anxiously awaiting confirmation of when her naturalization oath ceremony will take place.
Fernandez says she watches the news every day and wants to vote in support of fellow immigrants who won’t be able to have a say in this election — something she felt was emblematic of her time in Cuba. She’s leaning toward voting for Hillary Clinton but she’s also waiting to see whether Trump or Cruz will be the Republican nominee. She’s not a fan of Trump, she says.
“I have to vote,” Fernandez said in Spanish. “We have the right to vote for the person we think best represents the country and best represents your people. I’m very excited.”