Citizenship applications up amid anti-immigrant rhetoric

Published 8:59 am Monday, June 27, 2016

By Beena Raghavendran

Minneapolis Star Tribune

MINNEAPOLIS — Jubilation filled a Minneapolis courtroom earlier this week as about 50 people transformed from residents to U.S. citizens, clutching certificates and miniature American flags.

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They’ve got plenty of company. Nationally, the number of naturalization applications shot up by 13 percent in the first few months of this year, compared to the same period in 2015. In the Minnesota field office, where data includes North Dakota, South Dakota and western Wisconsin, applications have surged by 12 percent in that period.

Attorneys, new citizens and hopeful residents point to a range of reasons for the increase, from last year’s White House initiative promoting naturalization to the anti-immigrant rhetoric on the campaign trail this year.

“It’s fairly common, when something threatens immigrants, for them to take what tools that are at their disposal to try to protect themselves and their family,” said John Keller, executive director at the nonprofit Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota.

Immigrants are eager to cast votes against presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant campaign message, said Peter Nagell, an immigration and Social Security disability lawyer based in Columbia Heights. Trump has advocated building a wall on the Mexican border and ending citizenship for children of people who don’t legally reside in the U.S. After the Orlando nightclub shootings, he repeated his call to temporarily ban Muslim immigration to the United States.

The 13 percent increase in naturalization applications between October 2015 and January 2016 compared to the same stretch one year earlier isn’t the largest, according to a Pew Research Center report. When the government announced a fee increase in citizenship applications in 2007, for example, applications soared 89 percent over the previous year, the organization reported. Numbers from this spring are not yet available.

It’s difficult to pin down a sole factor for this spike in citizenship applications, said Deepinder Mayell, director of education and outreach at the University of Minnesota Law School’s Center for New Americans. He called the anti-immigrant discourse in the U.S. “unprecedented.”

“It’s hard to kind of say, ‘Is it because of any one of these reasons?’ “ Mayell said. “The national rhetoric, again, is affecting a lot of peoples’ understanding of their role and place in this country.”

Eyes on Election Day

Between running her Mexican restaurant in Eden Prairie and considering opening a second, Isabel Dalton has one eye on the clock. She’s racing to become an American citizen before the general election so she can cast a ballot against Trump. She said she finds his views about immigrants and women distasteful.

“When he talks, he makes me sick,” said the 51-year-old Eden Prairie resident, who emigrated from Mexico in 1997 and applied for citizenship in April. She would have applied for citizenship at some point, her husband, Larry, said, but acted now in hopes of getting her citizenship in time to vote.

Caroline Ostrom, a Minneapolis immigration lawyer who is representing Dalton, said that Trump’s candidacy has “uniformly been the issue” in her practice for people who are seeking citizenship now.

Gabriele Schmiegel immigrated from Germany more than 20 years ago and works at the International Student Office at the University of Minnesota. She said she has applied for citizenship, both for travel reasons and with the hope that she can vote by November.

“I do feel, as a German, that the rhetoric that I hear from Donald Trump kind of does remind me a lot of times of what happened in Germany in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s,” she said. “And that scares me.”

Not just Trump

Some experts caution that many other factors are pushing people to become citizens besides the election. Citizenship means protection from potential deportation, Mayell said. Keller pointed to safer travel on American passports and quicker family reunifications.

The road to citizenship takes time and an application fee that’s close to $700, Keller said. Potential citizens face waits that can range from five to eight months, he said. Application steps include fingerprinting, biometrics and potentially longer wait times before the in-person naturalization exam, Keller added.

For those who made it through the process and into the Minneapolis courtroom this week, the reasons for citizenship were as diverse as the countries they hailed from. Some were excited to head to the polls in November, but others had different priorities on their mind.

Farah Jama, 35, who lives in Willmar and immigrated from Somalia, wanted to get more opportunities and be able to visit his mother in Africa. He said he’ll be voting for Trump’s opponent, presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Tha Leh, 22, of St. Paul, who moved to the United States from Myanmar, grinned outside the courtroom after the swearing-in ceremony. Voting was on her mind, she said, but the candidate she’ll be picking? That part is a secret.

—Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.