It took In Suk Min two years to become a legal resident after she arrived in the United States from the Republic of Korea in 1996. But it took much longer for her to become a U.S. citizen. As a first-generation immigrant who needed to focus on keeping her family afloat, taking the next step has seemed out of reach, she said.
“I was always busy trying to make a living with a daughter of mine, and due to a language barrier and financial hardship of having to pay attorney fees, I’ve been postponing applying for a U.S. citizenship,” Min, 65, said through a translator at an event Tuesday afternoon at Houston’s City Hall.
On Tuesday, city and county officials joined leaders from local and national organizations, and immigrants like Min, to launch an initiative called Naturalize Now, Houston! The project aims to help at least 300,000 qualifying local residents become naturalized U.S. citizens over the next three years by diminishing the hurdles to naturalization. The figure is based on the number of qualifying residents registered in the area.
Min was there to provide testimony on some of the most common barriers stopping many Houstonians from attaining their U.S. citizenship, such as language issues and financial limitations, which in turn limit their access to civic participation.
Naturalize Now, Houston!, which was launched by a consortium of public and private entities led by the National Partnership for New Americans (NPNA), will allocate additional resources across the region to create “navigator” positions, which are volunteer jobs where the role is solely focused on aiding qualifying residents with their citizenship applications.
The regional effort is being supported through a $3.8 million investment from the Houston Endowment, and additional resources from the partnering organizations. The initial investment totals about $4.5 million, said Nicole Melaku, NPNA’s executive director.
Other partners include the city of Houston, Harris County, the National Partnership for New Americans, Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative, Mi Familia Vota, and Woori Juntos, through which Min has been able to find guidance and help applying for her citizenship.
From $40 to $725
Zenobia Lai, executive director of the Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative, recalls paying approximately $40 to apply for her citizenship around 30 years ago. Now, the application costs and biometrics add up to about $725, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and are expected to go up by at least $35.
“Back then, if you wanted to save money to pay for the [citizenship fees], you saved a dollar [a day]. It takes a month and a half, still a long time, but it’s attainable,” Lai said. “Right now, if you save a dollar a day, you have to save for two years.
“It is 100 times our minimum wage. So, think about that. This is a very heavy burden for our community members,” Lai added.
Through this program, the Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative will provide financial aid to cover the application cost for eligible residents with low-to-moderate incomes.
“It’s possible for us] to become the citizenship capital,” Lai said. “Why? Because back in [fiscal year] 2022, a little under 1 million people became citizens… Houston ranked number two, just slightly after Miami… so we are that close.”
According to the event’s press release, the city and county will have staff dedicated to increasing the role of local government in promoting the available resources to those who qualify. The city and the county both supported the recognition of Citizenship Day, commemorated on September 19 across Houston.
“This is the laboratory of what can be done in other places in the country where you maybe have some of the ingredients, but you need to maybe get the right recipe,” Melaku said. “Nationally there’s 9 million people who are eligible to naturalize. So my theory and our theory is, there’s an [immigration] reform to implement now if we start with those 9 million.”
Houston Endowment is a financial supporter of the Houston Landing. Houston Endowment had no influence on decisions related to the reporting and publishing of this article. The Landing’s ethics policy and list of financial supporters are available online.
Hola! My name is Danya Pérez, one of Houston Landing’s diverse communities reporters. I cover Latino/Hispanic communities here, including those who are mixed race or mixed status. ¡También soy México-Americana y hablo español! ¿Qué notas te gustaría leer? What topics or stories would you like to see me cover? Email me your ideas at email@example.com