Green Card Holders Worry About Trump's Efforts To Curtail Immigration

Feb 21, 2017
Originally published on February 22, 2017 1:29 pm

President Trump's executive orders so far have targeted immigrants staying in the U.S. illegally, refugees, and visa holders from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

"It's a good assumption," Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said at the Munich Security Conference on Feb. 18, that green card holders — or legal permanent residents — will not be affected by the revised travel ban Trump is expected to announce this week.

But Alondra Juarez, a green card holder in Los Angeles, says she is not taking any chances. On a recent morning, she was one of dozens lined up outside the office of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, or CHIRLA.

She had come before, but she turned back after she saw long lines.

"I want to say this is my sixth attempt," said Juarez, a 29-year-old social worker who has lived in LA for more than two decades.

She heard that CHIRLA was offering free help with citizenship applications during Trump's first 100 days in office. Juarez says she was troubled by Trump's executive order that temporarily banned travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

"The Muslim ban was an eye-opener because if you do ask a lot of Latinos with resident cards, they'll tell you, 'OK, first it was Muslims, and next, who's on the list? The Latinos, Hispanic population,' " she said.

Green card holders can apply for citizenship after staying in the U.S. for at least five years. But historically, nearly 40 percent of those eligible for citizenship — or about 10 million people — choose to keep their green cards, according to the latest estimate by the Pew Research Center.

While the courts have put the travel ban on hold, the uncertainty of Trump's immigration policies is keeping immigrants on edge. Many green card holders are now flocking to apply for citizenship, including Vera Mayorga.

Standing on the sidewalk outside CHIRLA's office, she said her mother, Dina, is concerned about more changes in immigration policy and feels that getting citizenship is the best insurance against being deported back to Guatemala.

"She doesn't want to go back," Vera said.

"This is scary because here is my life," Dina added. "My daughter's going to school here."

After CHIRLA staffers opened their office doors, the Mayorgas and other green card holders streamed inside to start filling out intake forms. There were so many people crammed into the room that more chairs had to be brought in. Smiles broke across nervous faces as a staffer welcomed them in Spanish.

"We used to see two to three people a week seeking citizenship services. Now we are seeing between 30 and 50 people a day," says Jorge-Mario Cabrera, CHIRLA's director of communications.

He says his organization hopes this recent rush for citizenship will eventually result in more new voters at the polls.

The right to vote and a U.S. passport are some of the top incentives for applying for citizenship. But there are also plenty of barriers that discourage some green card holders, including misinformation about the application process.

"What we want is to provide folks with the right information so that they don't end up at notarios and fraudulent attorneys that will take their money, wreck their lives and run away from it all," Cabrera says.

Allan Wernick, an immigration attorney who runs the City University of New York's Citizenship Now! program, has also seen a significant increase in green card holders seeking citizenship.

In the past, he says, some people have been intimidated by having to pass an English test and an exam about U.S history and government. Another challenge has been the fees, which can total as much as $725 to file the application for naturalization and to pay for the required fingerprinting and other biometric collection.

"Not everyone understands that if you're indigent or low income, you can get a waiver of that filing fee," Wernick explains.

Presidential election cycles generally boost the number of citizenship applications. Last year was no exception. Through September, application numbers were up more than 24 percent over the previous fiscal year.

Amir, a green card holder from Iran who lives in California's Orange County, submitted his application for naturalization a few weeks before Trump's inauguration

He asked NPR not to use his last name because he is worried that speaking out might affect his application.

He says he was shocked that green card holders from Iran and the six other mainly Muslim countries affected by the travel ban were initially not allowed to return to the U.S. after Trump signed his executive order on Jan. 27. The White House counsel eventually issued a statement saying that green card holders are exempt from the travel ban.

Still, the confusion brought up a lot of questions for Amir.

"What if I happened to be outside of the country and wanted to come back?" he says. "This is home. I mean, I own a house here. I have no other place to go. I'm here as an asylee and as a gay man. There's not a lot of welcoming in Iran for me."

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services says Trump's Jan. 27 executive order will not affect how it reviews citizenship applications.

Meanwhile, Amir hopes he will soon be able to take his oath of allegiance and become a U.S. citizen.

With the surge of applications, the wait may be longer than usual.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All right. Let's turn now to immigration. Legal permanent residents or green card holders can apply for citizenship after staying in the United States for at least five years. But historically close to 40 percent of those eligible for citizenship - or about 10 million people - choose to keep their green cards.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

That's according to the latest estimate by the Pew Research Center. Many are now worried about President Trump's efforts to curtail immigration to the U.S. This week, President Trump is expected to issue more executive actions. That has immigrants on edge and green card holders flocking to apply for citizenship. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: President Trump's executive orders have targeted unauthorized immigrants, refugees, plus visa holders from seven Muslim-majority countries. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly says it's a good assumption that green card holders will not be affected. But Alondra Juarez, a legal permanent resident in Los Angeles says she's not taking any chances.

WANG: On this morning, she's one of dozens lined up outside the office of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles or CHIRLA. She's gone before, but turned back after she saw long lines.

ALONDRA JUAREZ: Two, three - I want to say this is my sixth attempt.

WANG: Juarez is a social worker who's lived in LA for more than two decades. She heard that CHIRLA was offering free help with citizenship applications during Trump's first 100 days in office. Juarez says she was troubled by Trump's executive order that temporarily banned travelers from seven predominately Muslim countries.

JUAREZ: The muslim ban was an eye-opener because if you do ask a lot of Latinos with resident cards, they'll tell you, OK, first it was Muslims. And next - who's on the list? The Latinos, Hispanic population.

WANG: Another immigrant waiting in line, Vera Mayorga, says she and her mother, Dina, are worried, too. Vera says her mother's concerned about more changes in immigration policy and feels like getting citizenship is the best insurance against being deported back to Guatemala.

VERA MAYORGA: She doesn't want to go back.

DINA MAYORGA: Yeah. This is scary because here is my life. My daughter is going to school here.

JORGE-MARIO CABRERA: We used to see two to three people a week seeking citizenship services, and now we are seeing between 30 and 50 people a day.

WANG: Jorge-Mario Cabrera is a spokesman for CHIRLA. He says his organization hopes this recent rush for citizenship will eventually result in more new voters at the polls. The right to vote and a U.S. passport are some of the top incentives for applying for citizenship. But Cabrera says there are also plenty of barriers that discourage some green card holders, including misinformation about the application process.

CABRERA: What we want is to provide folks with the right information, so that they don't end up at notarios and fraudulent attorneys that will take their money, wreck their lives and run away from it all.

WANG: Allan Wernick has also seen a significant increase in green card holders seeking citizenship. He's an immigration attorney who runs a City University of New York Citizenship Now program. He says in the past, people have been intimidated by having to pass an English test and an exam about U.S. history and government. And he says another challenge has been the cost.

ALLAN WERNICK: There's a filing fee which is now over $700, And not everyone understands that if you're indigent or low-income, you can get a waiver of that filing fee.

WANG: Presidential election cycles generally boost the number of citizenship applications. And last year was no exception. Through September, applications were up more than 24 percent over the previous fiscal year. Amir of Orange County, Calif., applied for his citizenship a few weeks before Trump's inauguration. He's a green card holder from Iran, and he asked NPR not to use his last name. He's worried that speaking out might affect his application.

If there was a scenario where you had to leave the U.S. where would you go?

AMIR: This is a home. I mean, I own a house here. I have no other place to go. I'm here as an asylee and as a gay man, there's not a lot of welcoming in Iran for me.

WANG: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services says Trump's executive order suspending travel from Iran would not affect how they review citizenship applications. A travel ban has been put on hold by the courts, but the Trump administration says it's planning to announce a revised travel ban this week. Meanwhile, Amir hopes he'll soon be able to take his oath of allegiance and become a U.S. citizen. With the surge of applications, the wait may be longer than usual. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.