Basma Alawee fled with her family from Baghdad, Iraq, to Florida in 2010 after receiving threats on their lives. She is a former refugee and an activist on refugee issues.
She is also a naturalized U.S. citizen.
“I counted the days to become a citizen for so many reasons,” she said. “One, because I really want to have the passport so I could travel and see my family. … And the second, I wanted to vote, I wanted my voice to be counted. I want to make sure that I vote for people who protect communities.”
Alawee said the naturalization process can be expensive, and because of the pandemic, there are added barriers, such as backlogs and long waits while applications are processed. For example, in the Tampa, Florida, Field Office, 80% of U.S. citizenship applications are completed within 14 months. But in Baltimore, Maryland, processing times are reaching 16.5 months. And it costs $725 to apply for U.S. naturalization.
As the pandemic eased, the number of U.S. naturalizations rose. In 2021, 814,000 people became citizens, up 30% from 628,000 in 2020, according to a June 2022 annual report from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
“In my time, it took around eight to nine months since the day I applied,” said Alawee, who became a citizen in time for the 2016 presidential election. “I felt more belonging to this home and to this country,” she told VOA.
To become a U.S. citizen, most legal permanent residents (LPRs), also known as green card holders, must live in the U.S. for five years after receiving their LPR status.
A green card is, in most cases, the required first step on the naturalization path. Those adjusting their immigrant status by marrying a U.S. citizen generally must wait only three years to send an application.
Of the current 13.1 million green card holders in the U.S., 9.2 million meet the naturalization requirements of residency and are potentially eligible to naturalize, an increase of 260,000, or 2.9%, from 2020, according to the DHS report. The growth of the eligible population, the report says, is also a consequence of COVID-19’s impact on the immigration system.
“The suspension of in-person naturalization services from March 18, 2020, to June 4, 2020, to help slow the spread of COVID-19, contributed to the lower number of naturalizations in 2020,” the report shows.
The top 10 countries with the highest number of U.S. naturalized people in 2021 were Mexico, India, Philippines, Cuba, China, Dominican Republic, Vietnam, Jamaica, El Salvador and Colombia.
California, Florida and New York have the highest numbers of naturalized U.S. citizens.
Laila Martín Garcia is getting ready to vote for the first time on November 8 in the midterm elections. She became an American citizen in May 2022.
Garcia, who is married to a U.S. citizen, moved from Spain to the U.S. in 2017. She said many people do not talk about it, but going through the naturalization process affects the whole family.
“I was studying a lot. I would listen to the [citizenship] questions at home, in the car with my 7-year-old [in the back seat.] And by the end of the process, my son knew more than half of the 100 questions,” she said.
On Thanksgiving, a national holiday celebrated in the United States with family gatherings, she had her relatives take the citizenship test.
“We had Thanksgiving dinner with my husband’s family, and I decided I was going to see who at that table could become an American. And I found it funny that out of the 14 people, only one person — my husband — was actually able to pass that test,” Garcia said.
There are 100 questions on the civics section of the U.S. citizenship test, and those taking it are asked 10 of those questions orally by an immigration officer. Applicants must answer at least six of them correctly. Applicants are also asked to read, write and speak in English.
Because of COVID-19 closures, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) suspended all in-person naturalization services, including naturalization oath ceremonies. The agency is resuming those in-person services by having shorter ceremonies to limit possible COVID-19 exposure for those in attendance.
The agency also hosts outside events to celebrate important days in U.S. history. In 2021, USCIS welcomed 21,000 new citizens in 355 events across the country in observance of Constitution Day and Citizenship Day, which are celebrated on September 17.
USCIS Director Ur M. Jaddou wrote in a statement in 2021 that Constitution Day and Citizenship Day is a special one at USCIS.
“[It’s] an agency where many people come to work every day to help those at home and abroad realize the full meaning of U.S. citizenship. As we take time to reflect on what citizenship means to each of us, let us share in the commitment to invest fully in this country’s promise to be a place of hope and possibilities for all,” she wrote.
For people like Garcia and Alawee, who received their U.S. naturalization certificates through different immigration paths, their hope is for Americans to “support folks” who want to become U.S. citizens.
“Because for people who are born here, they have a sense of belonging. They don't have to earn their sense of belonging, but we have to prove it. … And I was one of the people that got that support,” Garcia said.