Last month, the Obama administration kicked off a multi-city tour in Los Angeles promoting the White House Task Force on New Americans, a nationwide effort to integrate “immigrants and refugees into American communities.”
The timing of the tour may seem unusual, given that it follows on the heels of federal immigration raids that advocates have called “unconstitutional” and that targeted Central American women and children attempting to integrate into American communities, but the administration actually established the task force in November 2014. In his presidential memorandum announcing the task force, President Obama wrote that “[b]y focusing on the civic, economic, and linguistic integration of new Americans, we can help immigrants and refugees in the United States contribute fully to our economy and their communities.” He added: “Our success as a nation of immigrants is rooted in our ongoing commitment to welcoming and integrating newcomers into the fabric of our country.”
According to the White House, the task force has made progress in its first year, including launching campaigns to reach its target audience: the 8.8 million lawful permanent residents, otherwise known as green-card holders, who are eligible to apply for citizenship but haven’t yet done so. There are approximately 13.3 million lawful permanent residents living in the United States. The only lawful permanent residents eligible to apply for citizenship are those that meet all of the requirements, including having been a permanent resident for five years (or three, if they’re filing as a spouse of a U.S. citizen).
One out of every three eligible individuals obtained permanent status in or before 1990, meaning they have been in the United States for decades but have yet to “enjoy all of the rights, benefits, and responsibilities that come with being a full American citizen,” according to the White House.
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California was the natural starting point for the tour. The Golden State is home to one of the highest population of legal permanent residents in the country, and they’re young enough to lean toward voting for Democrats. In addition, despite a long history of local law enforcement agencies working directly with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to target undocumented communities for deportation, Los Angeles is still seen as progressive on immigration in a state that offers undocumented communities in-state tuition, driver’s licenses, and state-funded health care for children. But the White House task force is not about helping undocumented communities or providing recourse against deportation to those who currently have none. Rather, it aims to naturalize the reported 750,000 legal permanent residents in the area, 350,000 of which are based in Los Angeles.
As the Los Angeles Times reported, Obama administration officials met on January 29 with Mayor Eric Garcetti, local nonprofits, and business owners “to discuss ways to encourage immigrants to become U.S. citizens.” Garcetti’s office told the Times the meeting covered how new citizens “can be integrated into American culture by learning English, finding jobs, and registering to vote.”
Forty-seven communities across 26 states have signed on to participate in the task force’s Building Welcoming Communities Campaign, including Los Angeles, Oakley, San Francisco, and San Jose, which bolsters cities’ “local immigrant integration efforts.” These efforts include developing policies or programs that build welcoming communities, establishing a “multi-sector collaborative” to expand opportunities for new Americans and all residents, and encouraging immigrants and refugees to participate in “civic life,” with a great deal of emphasis being placed on voting.
This last piece is of primary importance to politicians, according to Prerna Lal, clinical supervisor at East Bay Community Law Center and immigration attorney at UC Berkeley’s Undocumented Student Program. Lal told Rewire in an email that the end goal of the task force is “absolutely” not just to have more registered voters, but to have more registered Democrats.
“That’s what the task force is about—naturalizing these people, and then hoping they would vote for Democrats,” Lal said. “Registering people to vote for Democrats has been the failed strategy of immigration policy wonks for longer than I have been alive.”
Reports have shown that Latinos, which historically represent a significant portion of the nation’s naturalizations, “trend Democratic during their early years of voting.” New permanent residents have historically been younger than the native population of the United States, according to the Department of Homeland Security. (In 2013, for example, the median age for new permanent residents was 32 years old.) But in order to realize an actual “bonanza” for Democrats, immigration reform programs would have to succeed at “registering and turning out newly naturalized citizens,” Emily Schultheis at Politico reported, which she said is a “colossal challenge.” Still, what Obama’s task force would do is increase the number of newly naturalized voters.
When politicians talk about citizenship, they often talk about the ability to vote as a primary benefit. But for immigrant rights advocates, the ability for immigrants to maintain residency, see family outside of the country, or obtain government benefits are arguably more pressing concerns. For that reason, some local organizations work with low-income immigrants and refugees of color to connect the values that resonate with their communities with tangible policy issues and civic actions.
Lal said there are a myriad of reasons why green-card holders who are eligible for citizenship don’t apply for it, including language barriers, as people need to pass an English and civics test; fees, as it costs nearly $700 to apply; and lack of knowledge about the benefits that can be accessed as a citizen, so they feel no pressure to naturalize.
Once someone is a green-card holder, the process of becoming a U.S. citizen is virtually the same for most people, Lal told Rewire. There are slight differences, however. For example, one little-known fact, Lal said, is that if you are under 18, have a green card, and live with parents who become citizens, you have automatic citizenship.
Immigrant rights advocates are unsure just how successful the task force will be. Lal said the program offers little in the way of incentives. For example, the task force will not help with the cost of applying for citizenship; it merely enables green-card holders to put the cost of applying for citizenship on a credit card, unlike before.
If the government really wanted to increase the number of newly naturalized citizens, it would make the path to citizenship “more accessible to everyone, and less cumbersome as a process,” Lal said. “It’s hardly surprising that it has taken [the Obama administration] more than a year to roll out virtually nothing.”