I am responding to the front-page story on Tuesday, Feb. 5, “Fresno among worst places for gaining citizenship.” This story by Bee reporter Yesenia Amaro was based upon a report produced by a Seattle based immigration organization, Boundless. Therefore, my criticism of this story is aimed at Boundless, and not The Fresno Bee.
The story states that in 2017, Fresno had 54,000 immigrants eligible for naturalization, but only 2,631, or 4.8 percent, became citizens. So, how does Boundless know how many immigrants living in Fresno were eligible for naturalization? New immigrants do state where they intend to live, but many never go there, or leave shortly afterwards. In the 1970s and 1980s, Fresno received tens of thousands of Hmong and Laotian refugees on a secondary migration from Minnesota and Wisconsin. The INS had no idea these refugees had moved to Fresno until they came into the office and applied for a benefit. Since 1980, immigrants have not been required to report their address annually. While we may have immigrants’ last claimed addresses, we have no idea where they really live until they apply for a benefit.
The story reports the time for processing naturalization applications is about 10 months. This may be true, but it is an average. Many cases are processed in four months. There are many reasons that cases take longer to process, including the applicant failing his citizenship test on the first try and waiting for a second attempt. Everyone gets two chances, if needed. Failing a test adds at least two months to the processing time.
The story fails to mention naturalization fraud. Most applicants for naturalization are required to read, write, and speak English, as well as pass a test on American history and government. The requirement to speak English is waived for elderly applicants who have lived here for many years. It is also waived if a doctor signs a letter stating the applicant is unable to learn. Fraud doctor letters are issued by the thousands for immigrants who otherwise could not pass the English language requirement. When an applicant presents such a letter, many officers will ask to see the applicant’s driver’s license. If the applicant could pass the DMV test, the doctor’s letter needs to be investigated since the DMV test requires an ability to learn.
Another factor to be considered in Fresno’s low naturalization rate is the high percentage of immigrants from Mexico. Traditionally, Mexicans are less likely to apply for naturalization than most other nationalities. Part of this is because it is so easy to return to Mexico from the United States and many immigrants prefer to return as Mexican citizens. There is also great pride in being a Mexican citizen, and many do not want to renounce their Mexican citizenship.
Don Riding of Fresno was in charge of the Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Fresno from 1984 to 2011, when he retired. During that time, he presided over the naturalization of 300,000 new citizens.