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Latino Permanent Residents Say It’s Time to Become Citizens; Groups Rally to Help

New Jersey Assemblywoman Annette Quijano reviews paperwork a participant has filled out at a citizenship workshop in Elizabeth, N.J. on March 25th, 2017. Carmen Cusido

Elizabeth, N.J.— After close to three decades living as a legal permanent resident in West New York, New Jersey, José Ortega was taking steps to become a U.S. citizen.

“I feel helpless. I want to be able to vote for my president,” said Ortega, 59, who was born in Honduras.

Ortega was one of about 200 people at a citizenship workshop on March 25th, one of several that have been held around the country by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund.

There are several reasons why legal permanent residents who have lived in the United States for years, sometimes decades, are interested in becoming citizens now. According to NALEO representatives in New Jersey, California, Texas and North Carolina, one is the fear and uncertainty that President Donald Trump’s administration could enact tougher immigration laws that could affect even people who are permanent residents.

"There’s a lot of anxiety in the Latino community now that if they don’t become citizens, they run the risk of being deported," said Ileana Montes, an immigration attorney, who volunteered at the event. "Even people in an immigrant-friendly city like Elizabeth are afraid.”

She said she has helped dispel a lot of misinformation that can easily spread. For example, not all legal permanent residents know the nuances of deportation proceedings and may worry that minor violations like traffic tickets could get them deported or prevent them from becoming citizens.

But there are other reasons for pursuing citizenship, such as the ability to travel freely to one's home country without having to return to the United States within six months. There's also the chance to vote, and peace of mind.

NALEO works with local partners; in Elizabeth, the event was also organized in collaboration with New Jersey Assemblywoman Annette Quijano, the Hispanic Bar Association of New Jersey and other partners.

Quijano said there are 400,000 permanent residents in New Jersey alone who qualify to become citizens. The reasons some have waited to become naturalized, said the assemblywoman, is because many have been working several jobs and for years have been focusing on “survival, not citizenship.”

“Our country has failed to implement practical immigration policies for over two decades - and we don’t know what’ll happen in Washington,” Quijano said.

RELATED: A More Latino Hazleton, Pa. Braces for Trump’s Immigration Orders

In the Houston, Texas, area, NALEO and their partner organizations have already hosted three citizenship workshops this year, according to Claudia Ortega-Hogue, NALEO’s Texas director.

In the past, they would advertise two weeks in advance so people could attend these workshops. Now, they advertise a week or less as the demand outweighs the resources.

At one of them, people camped out at a site the night before so that they could get their questions answered, Ortega-Hogue said. “Laws can change rapidly, and there’s an urgency to apply for citizenship,” she added.

Houston resident Solomon Montoya, 60, has been a legal permanent resident since 1986. He left his native El Salvador more than three decades ago to escape his country’s civil war.

Montoya said his Mexican-born wife, a U.S. citizen, keeps nudging him to take the final step to become naturalized. Montoya said part of the reason he hasn’t yet sent his citizen application is because of the expense. It now costs $725 to send an N-400 application to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (it’s reduced to $640 for applicants who are 75 or older).

“It’s going to take me another two, three months to save up. I was not eligible for the fee waiver,” said Montoya, who works in maintenance.

“I’m here legally, but I’m not sure if Trump will kick people out who’ve been here a certain number of years but haven’t been naturalized yet. Laws can change and it puts me in fear,” said Montoya in Spanish. “There are several benefits of being a citizen - for example, I could vote and have my voice be heard.”

The U.S. government estimates there are 8.8 legal permanent residents who are eligible to become citizens, with 3.9 million from Latin America followed by 1.5 million from Asia.

In New Jersey, Montes said she could relate to many of the people she was helping as they filled out citizenship applications. She was born in Colombia and came to the U.S. on a student visa; she filed her paperwork to become naturalized a decade ago.

In Raleigh, North Carolina, NALEO recently hosted a citizenship workshop that drew close to 50 people to the event, according to Juliana Cabrales, the organization’s Mid-Atlantic Director of Civic Engagement.

“Saturday’s workshop was the first one we’ve done in the area post-election. Registration reached capacity immediately where it normally takes two to three days,” Cabrales said.

The organization's national hotline has also been flooded with calls. From January to March this year, 12,426 have reached out with questions about their citizenship applications, compared with 7,582 calls for the same time period in 2015. The number of volunteers also has surged, Cabrales said.

A citizenship workshop in the Raleigh area usually attracts 40 volunteers, but this past weekend, 60 people donated their time, including 15 attorneys.

“People more than ever are valuing being able to give that back and helping others become U.S. citizens,” said Cabrales.

In New Jersey, Carlos Alberto Naranjo had been putting off his citizenship application for years, though he has been a legal permanent resident in Elizabeth, New Jersey, for 30 years.

“I never had the desire before. … I thought it was too much work,” said the 57-year-old Colombian carpenter. But now, with the political climate in the U.S., Naranjo said it's time. “It’s easier (to become a citizen) than have to worry about new immigration laws that could impact me.”

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