American Citizenship 101

Celebrating American Citizenship

A couple of weeks ago, we celebrated American Independence Day with all of the usual festivities. We commemorated our nation’s birthday by attending a parade, watching the night sky light up with fireworks in downtown Houston or enjoying a three-day weekend with family and friends.

Moments like these remind us just how lucky many of us are to be native-born American citizens. However, this birth right protected by the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution is not the only route to becoming a U.S. citizen.

For the millions of legal permanent residents (LPRs) in the U.S., naturalization provides an opportunity for them to share the same rights and privileges that many of us take for granted.

Naturalization is the process of granting citizenship to foreign citizens or nationals under regulations established by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952. The naturalization application process is not an easy task. First, the process can take up to five years of meeting permanent residency requirements. In addition, LPRs must learn to read, write and speak English, if they are English language learners, and pass a civics test on U.S. history and government.

Pop quiz! We elect a U.S. Senator for how many years?*

Another route to naturalization is serving in the armed forces. Young LPRs risk their lives abroad in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq fighting for American rights that they themselves have not yet been granted.

According to a report Estimates of the Legal Permanent Population in 2009 released by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services of the Department of Homeland Security, there are 12.5 million LPRs in the U.S. and close to eight million are eligible to apply for naturalization. Texas was the third leading state of residence with 1.2 million LPRs and 860,000 of them are eligible to be naturalized. The four top states with the most LPRs are California, New York, Texas and Florida, which account for 58% of the legal permanent residents living in the U.S.

Another Way to Celebrate America

In addition to celebrating America on the 4th of July, how about celebrating our nation through assisting LPRs in their path to citizenship?

The University of Houston’s Hobby Center for Public Policy has joined non-partisan organizations such as the League of Women Voters of the Houston Area, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, and Mi Familia Vota (My Family Votes) in education projects focusing on the naturalization process and citizenship’s responsibilities such as voting and civic participation.

The Hobby Center for Public Policy (HCPP) acts as an information center providing study materials and other resources on citizenship for LPRs in the greater Houston area. HCPP interns also frequently volunteer with the League of Women Voters and other organizations that provide voter and citizenship outreach.

The League of Women Voters of the Houston Area (LWV-HA) is present at all Houston area naturalization ceremonies for the purpose of providing an on-the-spot voter registration service. In advance of each ceremony, they prepare approximately 3,500 voter registration applications.

“The League of Women Voters of Houston is at every single Houston area ceremony. There are generally 11 in each year. We’ve registered more than 70,000 new citizens, on the spot, over the last four and a half years,” said Linda Cohn, president of the LWV-HA.

Volunteers also are needed at many upcoming citizenship workshops taking place throughout the U.S. to assist the thousands of LPRs with the naturalization application process. Volunteers are trained in the basics of filling out the N-400 application, eligibility requirements and legal insight into the naturalization process.

The next citizenship workshop in Houston is on July 16, from 10:00 a.m. to noon at the Baker Ripley Neighborhood Center, 6500 Rookin Street.

How about extending that patriotic 4th of July feeling by volunteering at the workshop?

Can’t make it Saturday? “Future citizenship workshops are scheduled each month – sometimes twice a month,” said Claudia Ortega-Hogue, Texas Director of Civic Engagement for NALEO Educational Fund.

For the last four years the NALEO Educational Fund has assisted thousands of people by organizing citizenship workshops in the greater Houston area.

“These workshops could not be possible without the support of the volunteers. Our goal is to motivate and educate the community so that they can be fully engaged in the American political process from citizenship to public service. It takes a community to help them (LPRs) with volunteers and through community partnerships, such as ours with the League of Women Voters, forming a culture of participation and civic engagement so that new citizens can make their voices heard at the polls,” said Ortega-Hogue.

If you volunteer at a citizenship workshop, assist in a naturalization ceremony or participate in any civic activity in the upcoming year, I predict next year’s 4th of July celebration will take on an extra special meaning as you watch the Houston skyline light up with fireworks of red, white and blue.

*The answer to the civics pop quiz is that U.S. senators serve a six year term.

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