Clearing a path for the poor to U.S. citizenship, how New York leads the way

Create: 07/21/2016 - 06:24

In a year when Americans are selecting a leader to succeed Barack Obama, the first Black person elected president and when they may be on the verge of placing a woman in the White House, immigration has taken a front row seat at the table where national issues are resolved.

That table: the hundreds of thousands of voting booths scattered across the 50 states, plus Washington D.C., Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam. And while billionaire Donald Trump, the Republican standard-bearer in the presidential battle is wooing millions of nativists with hard line vows to bar Muslims from entering the country and with threats deport 11 million undocumented immigrants and Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee is promising better days through comprehensive immigration reform for those born elsewhere, New York State is showing the rest of the nation how a thorny immigration issue should be tackled with aplomb. It is launching a special program designed to make it easier for people to apply for citizenship.

The initiative amounts to a financial helping hand for about 2,000 green card holders who are currently unable to come up with the hard-earned cash to apply for citizenship. The immigration application fee is currently pegged at $680 per permission but it will jump to $725 in the fall. At first glance that sum of money may appear to be a small price to pay for such an important benefit but it can be a hefty sum of money for people with meager incomes but large families to support.

Called NaturalizeNY, the program is being implemented in two phases and will involve people’s name being entered into a lottery that will decide who should be assisted. It is going to cost $1.25 million and the state, private firms and foundations plan to put up the money to finance it.

That partnership, the first of its kind in the country will also include conducting classes in English for the foreign-born whose native language isn’t English. It will also provide information about the responsibilities and the requirements for citizenship.

New York State Senator Bill Perkins, a Harlem Democrat and a prominent immigration advocate is an enthusiastic supporter of the new initiative because, as he explained it the other day, it “makes people feel welcome to our state.”

Perkins’ Democratic colleague from Brooklyn, State Senator Kevin Parker, was equally persuasive and supportive.

“We have taken a bold leadership stance which I hope will reverberate throughout the country,” was the way he put it. “It sends a loud message nationwide that we as a state not only recognize the importance of making a path to citizenship for legal immigrants but we are welcoming and supportive of the ideals on which the nation was founded.”

Those reactions echoed the sentiments of Governor Andrew Cuomo, the grandson of immigrants, who described immigration as “our strength,’ our “renewal” that is at our “core.”

These voices stand in sharp contrast to Republican noisemakers whose platform that’s being drafted at this week’s National Convention in Cleveland where Trump is being crowned suggests a tough time ahead for those whose navel strings were buried in foreign countries.

Trump has vowed to build a wall along the Mexican-U.S. border to keep out Hispanics seeking to enter the country to improve the quality of their lives. What a pity.

Citizenship is vital to people’s ability to live out the American dream of climbing the economic and social ladder, educating their children, living in a

secure homes and gaining access to certain government services and jobs which their taxes help to finance.

The state’s initiative has an interesting history. Alter the U.S. Supreme Court was unable to reach a definitive judicial stance on Obama’s executive order that would have given millions of undocumented souls a greenlight to remain in country, immigration advocates urged states legislatures and administrations to help poor immigrants become citizens. The cost of citizenship and an inability to meet the English language requirement was a major obstacle to that dream.

What’s needed now is for the program to be conducted efficiently. It should also be extended and expanded so that many more people can take the citizenship oath, carry a U.S. passport and enjoy the plethora of benefits that flow from naturalization.

The State Office for New Americans has a lot of work to do. It’s too important to become a one-shot deal.

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