The federal government hasn’t done enough to address immigration issues, including the growing backlog of U.S. citizenship applications, said Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams.
So the county is taking the issue into its own hands, with the launch of a new program Thursday called United for Citizenship that will work to naturalize the more than 22,000 eligible residents in Salt Lake County.
“The ultimate solution is we need Congress to take action and they have failed to do so,” McAdams told The Salt Lake Tribune. “In the meantime and in the absence of Congress taking action, we are doing what we can at the local level.”
The program, announced at a news conference at the state Capitol on Thursday, looks to address several obstacles for eligible residents in navigating the citizenship process: lack of information, language barriers, difficulties with the civic exam and high costs.
That will take the form of a two-pronged approach, McAdams said, one of which is making information about legal and language help more easily accessible. The county will place 150 blue resource boxes, paid for by American Express, around the community with information aimed to help legal, permanent residents get started on the process. The boxes will include checklists, exam flashcards and information about where to apply for fee waivers that can also be found at a new web page online.
Yasaman Keshavarz, an immigrant from Iran, came to the United States as a refugee in 2011 and was eligible to apply for citizenship five years later. She completed the process last April.
“One of the reasons I chose to be a citizen was because I wanted to feel I belonged,” she said at the event. “This is my home now. This is my country now.”
Keshavarz has a master’s degree and is fluent in English — but she said she still found the citizenship process, and particularly the exam, difficult to navigate. She hopes that with the additional resources from the county’s new initiative, others in her position will have an easier time.
There are a number of benefits to becoming a citizen, she said: better educational and travel opportunities, as well as access to better jobs. That access, in turn, can increase the earning potential immigrants have and help grow the economy, McAdams said.
But it’s been difficult under the Trump administration for the state to reap the benefits that its immigrant population could bring. Last year, Utah’s backlog of legal residents who are awaiting approval of U.S. citizenship applications grew faster than in any other state, prompting McAdams and Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski to join a group of 45 mayors and county executives nationally to ask federal officials Monday to “take aggressive steps to reduce the waiting time.”
The second prong of the county’s United for Citizenship approach in addressing immigration issues at the local level is enlisting the help of the community, including business owners, churches, schools and local and state leaders, some of whom spoke at the event.
UNITED FOR CITIZENSHIP PARTNERS
∙ Salt Lake Community College
∙ Utah State Library
∙ The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
∙ Holy Cross Ministries
∙ Catholic Community Services
∙ Salt Lake County Office for New Americans
∙ Salt Lake County Library
∙ International Rescue Committee
∙ English Skills Learning Center
∙ Communities United
∙ United Way of Salt Lake
∙ Asian Association of Utah
∙ Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce
Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, sponsored the legislation that appropriated $100,000 toward the new citizenship initiative, which she called one of the “best investments” the Legislature could make in the state’s future.
“Welcoming is the Utah way,” she said at the event. “This land has welcomed generations of new Americans who now call Utah home — from the pioneers, to the Chinese, to the Japanese immigrants to the refugees of today, this state has provided so many the opportunity to succeed and pay back. With Utah’s thriving economy, it is more important than ever to build on this tradition.”