Next November, Americans will again head to the polls to vote in national elections that could change the balance of power in the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives. Local elections held at the same time will have profound effects on our everyday lives, affecting funding for our schools, roads, and social safety net programs. The right to vote and determine our elected representatives is at the heart of American democracy. Women, Black Americans, and other people of color had to fight long and hard, often at the cost of their own lives, for the right to vote.
Many immigrants see the right to vote as a central reason for applying for American citizenship, as it is a right held only by U.S. Citizens. As I enter my tenth year as an immigration attorney, I’ve had the honor of helping countless immigrants from numerous countries through the naturalization process. For some, it’s a final hurdle in a long and arduous immigration process. For others. it’s something they never thought was possible due to language or other barriers. But for all my clients, it’s a moment of excitement and joy. A moment when the country they have chosen as their home welcomes them and they get to call themselves an American.
America is a country of immigrants. According to the Pew Research Institute, America has more immigrants than any other country in the world–more than 40 million total. Of those more than 40 million immigrants, almost 45% are naturalized citizens and make up one in ten eligible voters. But there are millions more who are eligible to naturalize, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
It is for this reason that every year the American Immigration Lawyers Association, in partnership with NALEO Educational Fund, the National Partnership for New Americans, Citizenshipworks, local AILA chapters, and community-based organizations, hosts Citizenship Day clinics. Over the years, these in-person and virtual pro bono clinics have helped eligible members of communities across the nation get closer to completing the naturalization process. This year, my AILA chapter in New England was proud to partner with the MIRA Coalition to host a citizenship day clinic at the Boston Public Library. Despite threats of a hurricane, we had a wonderful turnout, with 37 volunteers helping to complete 49 citizenship applications; the pictures to either side are of some of the wonderful volunteers from our chapter. Other AILA chapters are holding events throughout the rest of September and even into October.
While it might seem too early to think about the 2024 election cycle, USCIS processing delays mean that eligible permanent residents must start their naturalization applications as soon as possible to ensure they are eligible to vote in November 2024. For example, USCIS field offices in New England are currently taking an average of 9.5 months to adjudicate citizenship applications, which means someone who files in September 2023 may not get a decision on their application until June 2024 or later. This is after the primary election in many states and only a few months before the voter registration deadline for the November election (though in Massachusetts newly naturalized citizens can register to vote up until 4 pm the day before any election!)
The right to vote is central to American democracy – it is both a right and a responsibility. For those immigrants interested in voting during the upcoming election season, it’s time to start your citizenship application process!
AILA members interested into engaging more in pro bono, National Pro Bono Week is the last week of October! Stay tuned for pro bono highlights and opportunities.