Nonprofits work to help legal immigrants become US citizens

The costly, lengthy, labyrinthine path to US citizenship can take two years to complete, dissuading many from trying. Nonprofits are jumping in to help.

By , The Chronicle of Philanthropy

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    Alan Valdivia receives assistance in filling out paperwork at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. Once people become legal immigrants they face another hurdle: the arduous and costly path to becoming US citizens.
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A group of more than 80 grant makers, nonprofits, and businesses has created a network to help legal immigrants living in the United States become citizens.

The New Americans Campaign will aim to use $20 million donated by multiple foundations to make it easier for people to become full-fledged Americans. Currently, barriers prevent the vast majority of the nation’s 8 million legal immigrants from becoming naturalized. Only 8 percent of those eligible each year do so, the campaign reports.

Applying for citizenship costs $680—too much for many immigrants. The lengthy, labyrinthine path to citizenship can take two years to complete, dissuading many from trying. Many who do fall prey to fraudulent operators who take their money but offer little in legal services in return.

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“The goal of the campaign is to allow those who want to take that last step toward citizenship navigate the system,” says Geraldine Mannion, director of the US Democracy and Special Opportunities Fund at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, one of six grantmakers involved in the campaign. Carnegie has made $7 million in grants to the effort. “We want to help people who contribute to our country economically and socially integrate fully into it.”

Since July 2011, the campaign has run a pilot program that has helped 30,000 legal permanent residents by linking them with new online technology that streamlines the citizenship application process, saving them $20 million in fees and legal costs.

The effort also uses new approaches to reaching immigrants in eight cities where a total of 3.3 million legal residents live, tapping dozens of immigrants' rights and faith-based groups.

Finding institutions that will lend money to people who couldn’t otherwise afford to pay for citizenship will also be part of the campaign’s work, Ms. Mannion says.

“We see people who would like to become citizens along with their family members,” she says. “When you have a family of five, that’s a lot of money to come up with. It’s important for us to look for new ways to help them find it.”

In addition to Carnegie, founding supporters include the JPB Foundation and Open Society Foundations, both in New York; the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, in Miami; the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, in San Francisco; and the Grove Foundation, in Los Altos, Calif.

This article originally appeared at The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

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