Creating a Culture of Citizenship on Long Island

Citizenship may be more accessible than many Long Islanders realize. Credit: Natalie Love.
Citizenship may be more accessible than many Long Islanders realize. Credit: Natalie Love.

June is the kickoff month for the new Pathway to Citizenship program that has already received so much press. This project, housed at CARECEN, is the product of collaboration among a dozen organizations and governmental entities. It assists permanent residents in applying for citizenship.

In conjunction with the start of the program, I thought that it might be useful to look at citizenship on Long Island. I am going to be writing about this subject over the next several weeks.

Until 1999, Long Island did not have a large foreign-born citizen population. Most Long Islanders who were born abroad were in statuses that prevented them from becoming citizens. Only lawful permanent residents can apply for citizenship, and many Long Island immigrants were in statuses like Temporary Protected Status that did not allow them to naturalize.

Over the last 15 years that has changed dramatically as thousands of those with temporary statuses were finally allowed to become permanent residents. The largest group were the estimated 25,000 Central American refugees on Long Island who won their green cards under the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act (NACARA).

After obtaining permanent residence, most had to wait five additional years to apply for citizenship. Those married to U.S. citizens and those in the military had shorter waits, but most had to complete five years of permanent residence first. By 2005, tens of thousands of people were eligible for citizenship and by now nearly 100,000 are eligible.

Last year, CARECEN helped 300 immigrants apply for citizenship and, over the last month alone, we have had 100 people make appointments for our free citizenship services. While we are overjoyed at how effective we have been in helping people to apply, we also see a major obstacle to our goal of getting everyone to citizenship.

Because there were very few immigrants who had become citizens before the last decade, many permanent residents don’t know anyone who has made that journey. There is no one in their families reminding them that now that they have five years of permanent residence they need to become citizens. There is no one to reassure them that it is not an impossible dream and that many ordinary immigrants pass the tests and are naturalized.

The new Pathway to Citizenship Project addresses that problem with an aggressive outreach and coaching program. We hope over the next year to show the immigrant community in Nassau County that naturalization helps immigrants, their families, and their community and that it is something that almost any resident can achieve. CARECEN hopes to create a Culture of Citizenship on Long Island.

If you want free citizenship assistance, call CARECEN at 516-489-8330.

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Patrick Young blogs daily for Long Island Wins. He is the Downstate Advocacy Director of the New York Immigration Coalition and Special Professor of Immigration Law at Hofstra School of Law. He served as the Director of Legal Services and Program at Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN) for three decades before retiring in 2019. Pat is also a student of immigration history and the author of The Immigrants' Civil War.

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