By Rebecca Trela
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire
WASHINGTON “Bienvenidos a los Estados Unidos!” Welcome to the United States would you like a checking account with that? Maybe you’re searching for a job, an apartment or a health care provider?
In an attempt to ease the naturalization process for immigrants, officials from the Citizenship and Immigration Services unveiled a manual and related materials at a press conference Thursday to answer those questions and many others.
“The purpose of this effort is to reach out to immigrants as soon as they are in this country,” said Alfonso Aguilar, CIS chief of citizenship. “We want to be sure that we lay out the welcome mat from the very beginning, and shy away from being a bureaucratic agency that just processes paperwork.”
CIS, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, is attempting a sweeping structural change of the country’s approach to legal immigrants. Before the service was created last year, recent immigrants and newly naturalized citizens were given little social service information, if any.
Aguilar is seeking to turn that around. He stressed that local governments and agencies, including faith-based groups, should take the lead on such issues as English literacy, multi-media information and providing study materials for the citizenship test. He said he also hopes to provide tax incentives for businesses that provide CIS materials to workers and help them learn English.
The manual, “Welcome to the United States: A guide for new immigrants,” is the flagship effort of his agency. More than 100 pages long, it will be available in 10 languages, as well as in English on fourth grade, fifth grade and adult reading levels.
“The whole initiative by CIS is long overdue,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank, in an interview. “Something like this should have been implemented years and years ago.”
Other changes will include a new version of the citizenship test. Long criticized for an unequal mix of tough and simple questions, the new test could be available by 2006.
“The test it’s something that is not going to happen overnight,” Aguilar said. “In general, some of the questions are very trivial. We’re looking for more concept- and context-driven questions.”
“This is the largest wave of immigration in the history of the country, in terms of sheer numbers,” Aguilar added. He cited several cities in which CIS met the goal of a six-month maximum to process citizenship requests, but acknowledged that the organization has a long way to go. The agency has been criticized for taking too long with applications.
“This is an encouraging sign as long as the tone is both welcoming and lays out what’s expected of immigrants,” said Krikorian. “We need to do a better job making sure they don’t sink. You can’t do mass immigration on the cheap.”
CIS is concerned with retaining “American civic identity” in an era when the number of foreign-born citizens is increasing by as many as 500,000 per year, Aguilar said.
Aguilar also emphasized that, although CIS is an arm of Homeland Security, which is interested in identifying terrorists, long-term residents are considered American and welcome in communities nationwide.
“Whether you are a legal permanent resident or a full-fledged citizen, you are a member of the community. Perhaps they can’t vote … but there are many ways they can participate. We want them to be part of the community,” said Aguilar.
The new welcome manual is available online at www.uscis.gov.