National News

More immigrants applying for citizenship amid Trump fears, lawyers say

Posted December 30, 2017 12:06 p.m. EST

TAMPA -- One by one, an immigration official called the countries of origin for the nearly 70 immigrants who became Americans during a recent citizenship ceremony.

They came from 31 nations, including Belgium, Chad, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Thailand. When Brazil was announced, Luisa Goethe of Tampa stood. She started to cry, wiping tears from her face as she smiled.

A 29-year-old mother of two who works in property management, she came to the United States 15 years ago. Goethe became eligible for citizenship in 2014, but put it off since the processing fee is $725.

When Donald Trump was elected president, gaining her citizenship became urgent. She worried her green card status would be revoked and she would be deported.

"The thought of being separated from my children," she said, pausing to stop from crying again, "You don't know what's going to happen."

Historically, legal immigrants have sought citizenship for a variety of reasons: the right to vote, traveling abroad with a U.S. passport, sponsoring family members from their countries.

But Goethe may not be alone in her reasons to pursue citizenship. Lawyers and immigration experts suspect many residents are applying as a safeguard against deportation as the Trump administration tightens immigration policies.

"People are understanding that in this hostile environment, it is much better to have the full protections of citizenship," said Joshua Hoyt, executive director of the National Partnership for New Americans.

• • •

In 2016, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services received 971,242 naturalization applications, a 24 percent increase from the previous fiscal year.

Hoyt, whose organization tracks citizenship trends, said that's typical in an election year. People want to become citizens so they can vote. The applications usually plummet after elections.

But that didn't happen this year. Instead, USCIS received 986,460 applications in its fiscal year 2017, increasing slightly from 2016.

"The only way to explain it is people are afraid or they're angry or they want their voices heard," Hoyt said.

As legal permanent residents, immigrants can work, get a Social Security number, and obtain a driver's license. But in the eyes of the country's immigration system, America isn't their home, Hoyt said.

"A green card holder is a guest in the United States and can be deported for a whole series of reasons," he said.

Becoming a citizen means a person has adopted the United States as their country. They can get a U.S. passport, be summoned for jury duty, and vote.

Since taking office, Trump has focused on restricting immigration laws. He has backed a plan to create a merit-based immigration system and eliminated protections for young undocumented immigrants. In November, his administration revoked the legal status of roughly 50,000 Haitians living here under the Temporary Protected Status program.

In 2017, the number of deportations that occurred as a result of an arrest by a federal agent totaled 81,000, the highest it's been in the last three fiscal years.

Christian Zeller, partner at the Tampa-based immigration law firm Maney Gordon Zeller, said his clients typically seek citizenship when they want to petition for family members or participate in elections.

"If someone is politically unhappy, that becomes a motivator," he said. But since the election, he said, "There's a certain fear factor that we always notice."

At St. Petersburg lawyer Arturo Rios' office, he's also seen a "noticeable increase" in clients interested in citizenship.

"I believe it stems quite simply from all the immigration law and policy uncertainty from the current administration," he said. "People are simply playing it safe."

• • •

The avalanche of applications is causing a backlog. There are more than 734,000 pending applications, a 40 percent increase since 2016, according to USCIS figures.

In Florida, applications slightly decreased from 2016 to 2017, but pending applications rose, reaching 92,336 by September.

That means processing times are longer, reaching an average of 242 days from 169 the previous fiscal year, according to federal figures. To handle the influx of cases, USCIS is allocating more funds for employee overtime and is bolstering recruitment efforts.

"We continue to receive more applications than we are presently staffed to handle nationally," the USCIS said in a statement.

That's something that concerns Hoyt. In an October report, the National Partnership for New Americans noted that the delayed processing times are stalling immigrants' efforts to become Americans.

Applying is already a lengthy process: a 20-page application, a background check, an in-person interview, as well as civics and English tests. Then they attend a ceremony, where they take the oath to officially become a citizen.

The processing times, Hoyt said, "prevents legal immigrants from becoming full participants in democracy."

• • •

Dec. 15 was a busy day at the USCIS Tampa office just north of W Hillsborough Avenue. Roughly 200 people became citizens during three ceremonies on that day.

"I memorize the oath so I can look at your faces and see the emotion," said supervisory officer Ken Vasquez during the second ceremony. "I know this has been a long journey."

Afterward, a reporter asked new Americans why they decided to get naturalized. Patrick Ngubi, from Kenya, is a restaurant manager but dreams of owning his own business one day. Angel Gonzalez, a construction worker who left Cuba in 1997, wants to visit his family on the island for the first time.

At the back of the room, employees from the Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Office helped people register to vote.

Goethe, the Tampa woman from Brazil, grabbed a clipboard with a voter application and started filling it out.

"I wanted to be able to vote and have my voice heard."

Contact Laura C. Morel at lmorel@tampabay.com. Follow @lauracmorel.