Mississippi group helps immigrants become US citizens

Published 5:34 pm Thursday, October 22, 2009

Advocacy groups will begin a push this weekend on the Mississippi Gulf Coast to encourage immigrants to start the process of becoming U.S. citizens.

The Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance will spend Saturday in Biloxi educating immigrants about becoming naturalized citizens. Census figures show about 2 percent of Mississippi’s population is Hispanic, the leading immigrant population.

The Gulf Coast’s migrant worker population swelled after Hurricane Katrina’s devastation in 2005 gave way to multibillion dollar rebuilding that attracted construction workers. But the region also is home to more established immigrants who haven’t sought citizenship, said MIRA executive director Bill Chandler.

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He said the citizenship process — including English and civics tests and a $675 fee — can be discouraging.

“A lot of people are conflicted about abandoning their country of origin; others because they don’t speak English,” he said.

Yet, interest in citizenship nationally has been growing.

“In 2006, we had millions that marched around the country for fair and just immigration reform and to stop state Legislatures and Congress from passing regressive bills,” Chandler said.

The year after the march federal statistics show citizenship applications surged with nearly 1.4 million applications, the most in nearly a decade.

Hispanic support also is credited with helping elect Barack Obama as president.

Clarissa Martinez, director of immigration national campaigns for the National Council of La Raza, an advocacy organization, has criticized the Obama administration on immigration reform. The president has yet to present a proposal to Congress.

“I think the community is growing very impatient in terms of what is going to be done on this issue,” Martinez said. “What happens after elections? You need to hold people accountable.”

Obama has said he’ll begin work on comprehensive immigration reform this year, White House spokeswoman Gannet Tseggai said this week.

“The president understands our nation’s immigration system is broken and needs to be fixed,” Tseggai said in an e-mail.

In the meantime, Martinez said immigrants need help to navigate the system to citizenship.

Sharon Scheidhauer, spokeswoman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said the government doesn’t want the process to be a stumbling block.

Scheidhauer said study materials are available on the agency’s Web site. She also said the government has cleared a backlog so the citizenship path can take as little as six months for some.

Scheidhauer said the fee increased from $400 to $675 in summer 2007. Other requirements include living in the country legally three to five years and undergoing an extensive background check.

Some green-card holders never try to naturalize, Scheidhauer said.

“They think it’s a difficult, extensive process so they just avoid it,” she said.

On the Web: http://www.uscis.gov