Journal Staff Writer
As 83-year-old Nicaragua native Rosa Amaya spoke the final words of her oath of allegiance to the United States – officially becoming a citizen – she let go of her walker and threw her fist in the air.
“I’m proud to be a U.S. citizen, and I will defend this great country until my last breath,” she shouted in Spanish at a naturalization ceremony last week in Albuquerque, one of many happening each month in New Mexico and West Texas amid a surge in citizenship applications.
Advocates say that, over the past year, they have seen renewed interest among immigrants to cement their legal status in order to vote, motivated in part by years of record deportations under the Obama administration and months of anti-illegal immigrant statements from Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. Local advocacy groups have stepped up citizenship and voter registration drives over the past year as well.
Applications for citizenship received at the Albuquerque U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office climbed 48 percent in the third quarter of fiscal 2016 compared with the same April to June period a year ago, to 673 from 456. Applications at the El Paso USCIS office – where many southern New Mexican immigrants file their paperwork – surged 67 percent at the same time, to 2,220 from 1,328.
The backlog of citizenship applications nearly doubled at both locations, comparing the three-month period year over year.
“This uptick has not happened by chance,” said Neza Leal Santillan, spokesman for Somos Un Pueblo Unido, a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that advocates for immigrant rights. “It’s an intentional effort that immigrant families throughout the state have been working on.”
Nationally, the number of citizenship applications is trending up 14 percent so far this fiscal year after three straight years of growth, according to USCIS spokeswoman Arwen Consaul.
She said she cannot say whether the recent rise in New Mexico is due to the political climate, but added, “When I talk to people at naturalization ceremonies, I would say about half the people I talk to say it’s because they want to vote.”
In southern New Mexico, the Border Network for Human Rights has been working for nearly two decades to help immigrant families gain legal status or citizenship and register to vote – an uphill battle for most of that time, said BNHR Executive Director Fernando Garcia.
“We were facing a number of challenges,” he said. “Some of these families did not trust the political system because they come from places like Mexico where the system is essentially broken. Once they got legal status or became residents, they didn’t do the effort of becoming citizens because they didn’t see the benefit. But that changed last year.”
Advocates say that immigrants have been facing an onslaught of policies – current and proposed – that threaten to divide their families and communities.
Although the Department of Homeland Security has recently eased the pace of deportations, focusing on removing criminals and recent border crossers, more than 2.4 million people have been deported under the Obama administration from 2009 to 2014 – including a historic record of 435,000 people in 2013, according to the Pew Research Center.
Get-tough immigration proposals dominated the Republican presidential primary earlier this year, and Trump has built his campaign on promises to secure the border by building “a great wall” and deporting immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has promised comprehensive immigration reform that would include a “full and equal path to citizenship” for many immigrants living in the country illegally.
Garcia said fears of family separation began to spark interest in immigrant communities to secure citizenship – a costly, time-consuming process that can be especially difficult for immigrants in rural areas where legal help is nonexistent or expensive and USCIS offices are hours away in Albuquerque or El Paso.
Then, starting last year, “what really changed the conditions on the ground was this very aggressive rhetoric coming from the presidential election, where the promise for the future was ‘build more walls and deport everyone undocumented in this country,’ ” Garcia said. “People became really afraid, but they also got angry.”
Leal Santillan said Somos doesn’t endorse candidates or political parties, but he said individual members say they are especially concerned with “immigrant rights.”
“Regardless of which candidate or party they support, they want to send a message to all candidates to say these are the issues they care about,” he said.
Legal permanent residents can apply for citizenship after three years if they are here on a fiancé’s green card or after five years on any other green card. The filing fee costs $680 and the process for those who qualify can take six months, Consaul said. Applicants must show up to the field offices at least twice, for fingerprinting and an interview.
Marina Piña, Somos organizer for southeastern New Mexico, said immigrants who belong to the Somos network began a concerted effort a year ago to help family and community members apply for citizenship and register to vote.
“Immigrant families decided to start reaching out to legal permanent residents to help them go through the process for citizenship,” she said. “Most of our families are mixed-status families. Some of us are undocumented or married to a U.S. citizen or have children who are U.S. citizens.
“Definitely we do expect to see a larger voter turnout. We have been working on the ground doing voter registration day in and day out in the areas of Roswell, Hobbs and Clovis. Many of our members who are doing the work can’t even vote.”
‘Can’t wait to vote’
Bertha Andrade, 70, lived in Hobbs as a legal permanent resident for 24 years before applying for citizenship, thanks to help from Somos. She took her citizenship oath in July, got certified to register others to vote and said immigration reform is on the top of her mind for November.
“My main concern is for all the workers in my community who haven’t been able to legalize and who want a better future,” she said.
At the Albuquerque ceremony, where 45 people took the oath of citizenship, a USCIS official called out country names, and one person each stood for China, France, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Philippines and Yemen – with most of the room standing when Mexico was called.
Rosa Artiaga and Antonio Garcia, both from the Chihuahua state in Mexico, said they wanted to become U.S. citizens before the November election so they could vote. So did Honduras native Cesaria Fidelia Umanzor.
Amaya, the woman from Nicaragua, shouted again excitedly as the ceremony ended: “I want to vote. I can’t wait to vote.”
Journal photographer Roberto E. Rosales contributed to this story.