Turning Permanent Residents Into Citizens


Campaign Reaches Out to Millions—Often Discouraged by Labyrinthine Process—Who Haven’t Pursued Naturalization

Active Navy and Marine service members take an oath of citizenship on the USS Midway during a naturalization ceremony on July 3 in San Diego.

As Congress debates whether to put 11 million illegal immigrants on the path to citizenship, a network of private foundations, nonprofits and businesses has launched a campaign to turn legal U.S. residents who haven’t pursued citizenship into naturalized Americans.

More than eight million permanent residents, or green-card holders, are eligible to become citizens, according to the federal government.

On Wednesday, former President George W. Bush is to preside over a naturalization ceremony for 20 immigrants at his presidential center in Dallas, which will be followed by an event, sponsored by two of the foundations backing the citizenship initiative, focusing on the economic benefits of immigration, including citizenship.

“If even just half of those eligible for citizenship would naturalize, it could add billions of dollars to the economy in the next decade,” said Matthew Denhart, an immigration fellow at the Bush center, referring to wage and skill gains associated with becoming a citizen that would swell buying power.

Backed by $20 million in donations from foundations through 2015, the New Americans Campaign seeks to use new technology, outreach efforts and large-scale workshops to “turbocharge” citizenship, says Geri Mannion, director of U.S. programs at Carnegie Corporation. Other funders include the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund of San Francisco, the Grove Foundation of Los Altos, Calif., the Open Society Foundations and the JPB Foundation.

Individuals who demonstrate continuous permanent residence in the U.S. for at least five years, in most cases, are eligible for naturalization. But many applicants are discouraged by a labyrinthine process involving steep fees and red tape that can take years to complete.

Among the campaign’s technological components to jump-start citizenship are a set of tools, called CitizenshipWorks. An interactive website helps providers of legal assistance and other services efficiently prescreen immigrants for citizenship eligibility and then guide them through the application. A free mobile app, available in English and Spanish, walks individuals through the process and helps with preparation for a required civics exam.

In the field, about 100 organizations are teaming up to leverage resources, says Eric Cohen, the campaign’s coordinator. The target areas are Los Angeles, San Jose, Calif., Dallas, Houston, Charlotte, N.C., Miami and New York City, home to four out of 10 eligible immigrants.

Last week, the L.A. Chamber of Commerce announced participation in a project, sponsored by the NAC, to assist local employers willing to offer on-site citizenship workshops. Garment maker American Apparel Inc. is among companies to sign on.

“Citizenship raises employee productivity and retention,” said David Rattray, a senior vice president of the chamber.

In Miami, the New Americans Campaign has partnered with Miami-Dade County Public Schools to reach potential U.S. citizens in adult education programs. In L.A., “citizenship corners” at public libraries provide handouts and referral information. In many cities, immigrant-advocacy groups are planning citizenship workshops in Spanish and several Asian languages.

Several recent studies have found that naturalized immigrants boast higher income and lower poverty rates than noncitizens. They also are more likely to become homeowners and to further their education, according to the research. But not everyone who is eligible wishes to become a citizen, whether out of attachment to a native country, an aversion to bureaucratic hassle or the cost.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, only a third of all Mexican immigrants and about two-thirds of non-Mexican immigrants eligible to become citizens have naturalized. About 40% of the 2.7 million undocumented residents who got a green card in the last immigration legalization program, in 1986, had become citizens by 2009, according to official estimates.

The NAC targets those here legally, but campaign funders say the approach could be replicated if Congress passes an immigration overhaul. “We’d activate the same partners to implement comprehensive immigration reform,” said Cathy Cha, senior program officer at the Haas, Jr. fund, started by the late Levi Strauss & Co. chief executive and his wife, Evelyn.

A bipartisan Senate bill supports citizenship; many House Republicans have taken a skeptical position. One scenario that could emerge from the House would offer undocumented immigrants permanent legal residency, but without the possibility of eventually becoming citizens.

Some opponents of a path to citizenship say that Democrats generally favor such initiatives because converting millions of Hispanics and Asians into new voters would benefit their party. Both demographic groups lean Democratic and helped re-elect President Barack Obama.

To become naturalized, applicants must demonstrate proficiency in English and knowledge of U.S. history and government, in addition to paying a $680 application fee. Ms. Mannion said the foundations are in talks with some lending institutions to offer revolving loans to cover the application fee, and some businesses are considering offering loans.

Intel Corp.co-founder Andy Grove, who was born in Hungary and became a U.S. citizen in 1962, says his own story inspired him to fund the campaign. Recalling the moment he collected his U.S. passport, he said: “I belonged. This is what citizenship is all about.”

Write to Miriam Jordan at miriam.jordan@wsj.com

A version of this article appeared on The Wall Street Journal.

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