American Renaissance

State in Big Push for New Citizens

Oscar Avila, Chic. Tribune, Apr. 20

Frustrated that some legal immigrants are not seizing their right to become U.S. citizens, Gov. Rod Blagojevich on Monday pushed an expanded effort to bring English and civics classes to all corners of the state.

The initiative will use state funds to better walk immigrants through the process of becoming citizens, from learning English to filling out immigration forms to passing the citizenship test, supporters said.

“There are too many people who live in Illinois who don’t have those rights, don’t have those privileges and don’t have those responsibilities — all the things that go along with being an American citizen,” Blagojevich told a multi-ethnic crowd at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum in Pilsen.

According to a 2003 study by the Washington-based Urban Institute, about 340,000 legal immigrants in Illinois have not become U.S. citizens even though they are eligible. Another 142,000 legal immigrants will become eligible in coming years, the study found.

Illinois officials said they hope to increase the number of new naturalized citizens in Illinois by about 60,000 over three years. State officials already fund the Refugee and Immigrant Citizenship Initiative, launched in the 1990s to fund English and civics classes.

The latest project, the New Americans Initiative, will earmark about $3 million annually over three years, more than doubling the funding of existing state efforts to help immigrants become U.S. citizens.

Immigrant advocates said many people slip through the cracks. Those who study English at community colleges, for example, often do not have a bridge into citizenship classes offered through ethnic and social-service agencies, said Fred Tsao of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

The initiative is targeting suburban and Downstate towns, where social-service agencies have yet to catch up to a recent spurt of immigration, Tsao said.

Nationwide, experts single out Mexicans for not taking advantage of their right to become U.S. citizens.

The Urban Institute study found that only 34 percent of eligible legal immigrants from Mexico have become U.S. citizens compared with 67 percent from Asia and 65 percent from Europe and Canada. Experts said Mexicans often fail to naturalize because they have less income or education.

Maria Fernandez, 47, said she has been eligible for U.S. citizenship for two years but did not feel she had the English skills or financial resources to complete the process.

Fernandez, of Chicago, said she did not have easy access to English classes but instead learned the language from soap operas and newspapers. The Mexican immigrant also said many of her friends agreed with her that the citizenship process seemed too daunting to attempt.

After taking classes at the Institute for Latino Progress, the housekeeper said she feels confident that she will pass her citizenship exam in June.

“We came looking for the American dream, but we were blind in a way. We didn’t know where to start,” Fernandez said. “It’s not that we don’t want to. I do believe in this country.”

With the Chicago area representing the nation’s second-largest Mexican population, Blagojevich’s citizenship initiative will tap into a solidly Democratic voting bloc. Among U.S. citizens of Mexican descent nationwide, 49 percent identify themselves as Democrats.

Copyright © 2004, Chicago Tribune