Santa Clara County sees surge in new citizens
A naturalization ceremony at the USCIS San Jose field office held last summer. Naturalization ceremonies were held in outdoor spaces like parking lots during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of USCIS.

    Santa Clara County welcomed more than 20,000 new citizens last year, making communities politically and economically stronger, advocates said.

    Data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) reveals a total of 20,397 citizens were naturalized at the San Jose field office in the 2022 fiscal year, from October 2021 through September 2022. This is a significant increase from the 2021 fiscal year, which totaled 13,477 naturalizations. The San Jose field office mainly serves residents from Santa Clara County, but can also serve residents from other counties.

    A 2022 USCIS report shows more than one million citizens were naturalized across the nation during the 2022 fiscal year, the highest number of naturalized citizens in almost 15 years.

    In Santa Clara County, naturalized citizens gain access to labor benefits, voting rights and much more, advocates said.

    “Naturalization is one pathway toward equity,” said Monica Limas, immigration and citizenship program director at the Center for Employment Training. “By becoming a citizen, families can stay together, fear of deportation is gone. Individuals are able to… secure higher paying jobs and they establish stability.”

    Bridging language barriers and creating trust among immigrants goes a long way in helping them become naturalized citizens, Limas added.

    Mimi Nguyen, executive director of immigration nonprofit Step Forward Foundation, said while naturalization numbers dropped during the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown, residents had more time to consider applying for citizenship. Local immigration organizations helped raise awareness about potential benefits, she said, encouraging more residents to enter the citizenship process when government agencies reopened.

    USCIS data shows the current processing time for naturalization applications at the San Jose field office is approximately 13 months.

    “I personally have friends whose parents… especially Vietnamese or Spanish speaking individuals, who have lived in the United States for 20-30 years and never had the time or the opportunity to even think about naturalizing,” Nguyen told San José Spotlight.

    More than 134,000 Santa Clara County residents are eligible for citizenship, according to another USCIS report from last year. More than 49,000 residents in the group can gain citizenship through family ties and more than 46,000 can gain citizenship through employers. Data reveals the top countries where residents hail from are India, China, Vietnam, Mexico, Iran and the Philippines.

    U.S. residents meet eligibility for naturalization through specific requirements, including living in the U.S. for more than three years. Those who are eligible go through an application process that includes paperwork, an in-person interview and a citizenship test.

    Nick Kuwada, the San Jose Office of Racial Equity’s inclusion and belonging manager, said offering financial aid contributes to higher naturalization numbers. Applicants have to pay to apply and can incur legal fees, he added.

    “When you’re looking at several different family members who are trying to apply, it can be very, very costly,” Kuwada told San José Spotlight. “The city and a lot of the nonprofits in the sector are really concerned with trying to get people as much financial support as possible, helping people file that application with skilled advocates.”

    San Jose and its robust immigrant communities draw many new residents, Kuwada said. A recent study revealed the San Jose metro area, which includes the cities of San Jose, Sunnyvale and Santa Clara, is the No. 1 destination in the U.S. for immigrants looking for a better life. San Jose is also part of the top 10 list in the nation for cities that naturalized the most citizens in fiscal year 2021, USCIS data shows, the most recent year available.

    “We had a great migration of Vietnamese community members moving to the United States back in the 70s… (and) more recently, refugees from Ukraine and Afghanistan,” Kuwada told San José Spotlight. “There are a lot of people with close ties.”

    Contact Loan-Anh Pham at [email protected] or follow @theLoanAnhLede on Twitter.

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