Helping legal immigrants become naturalized citizens will help strengthen U.S. communities by allowing more voices into the local and national debate, Damian Thorman, Knight Foundation's national program director, said in a speech to the National Immigration Integration Conference in Boston.
'Today, in America, there are more than 12.6 million green card holders who live in our communities, work in our communities, but will never truly and fully participate in our communities'until they are citizens,' he said.
Thorman acknowledged that some might see an effort to help legal immigrants as less than urgent when so much of the debate over immigration centers on illegal immigrants. He noted that naturalization rates haven't kept pace with the increase in immigration.
'As a result, it's easy to paint an entire group as outsiders, part of the problem, rather than citizens and equally invested neighbors and members of communities in which we all live,' he said. 'Politicians know they can score political points by attacking immigrants, and they can get away with it because no one will hold them accountable at the polls. Think how much this dynamic would change if foreign-born citizens comprised a larger share of the electorate.'
Some 8.5 million green card holders were eligible for citizenship in 2005 and had not started the naturalization process, he told the audience. If more of those people can be helped along the path toward citizenship, they can help shape the immigration debate, he said. New citizens can contribute to the foundation's goal of fostering informed and engaged communities.
The foundation is investing $13.5 million in efforts to help integrate immigrants into their communities, funding English-language and civics instruction and helping grassroots organizations help immigrants who are eligible for citizenship pursue that.
Groups like the National Council of La Raza, the National Immigration Forum and Hispanics in Philanthropy have received grants to further their citizenship efforts. The foundation has also funded local community organizations that provide everything from micro-loans to bilingual preschools.
'Citizens can never be deported, and they are less vulnerable to the capricious whims of politicians or public opinion,' Thorman told the audience. 'Naturalization is often the difference between freedom and fear.'