Sept. 17 will be the first Constitution Day on which Eva Ng, a 59-year-old Cambridge resident, is a US citizen. For someone whose career centers around helping others attain what they’ve long sought — US citizenship — Saturday will be special for Eva.
Ng works at Project Citizenship, a nonprofit that helps immigrants understand the intricacies of the naturalization process. Project Citizenship assists immigrants in numerous ways, from understanding if they’re eligible for citizenship, to connecting individuals to civics and language classes.
Unfortunately, acquiring US citizenship — even after meeting the necessary requirements for decades — proved a lengthy task for Ng. On multiple occasions, she submitted all of the required paperwork to US Citizenship and Immigration Services, including declarations of every day she had spent outside the United States over the past five years. But this proved for naught, because USCIS waited months to process her application’s payment, which was ultimately denied due to this lengthy delay. When she submitted her third application, Ng ordered a bank check to ensure that USCIS could process it.
Ng’s experience highlights the flaws within America’s naturalization system. Far too often, applicants face yearslong wait times to attain what they have long qualified for: citizenship. An issue with their paperwork, or payment, or travel history arises, adding months — if not years — to the naturalization process. In 2021 alone, immigrants who attained Legal Permanent Residence waited a median of seven years before becoming US citizens — two years longer than the law usually requires.
Constitution Day honors the signing of the US Constitution, as well as the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship. The day lifts up not only native-born citizens, but naturalized ones. For those attaining their US citizenship, Constitution Day is one of pride and hope. Last year, from Sept. 17 through Sept. 23, US Citizenship and Immigration Services celebrated by naturalizing 21,000 new citizens — far above its usual rate.
In recognition of Constitution Day, we must go beyond recognizing and appreciating the rights US citizens have. We must also recognize the contributions that immigrants have made to America and the need to decrease barriers in the naturalization process.
All of this is especially true in Massachusetts, where immigrants are driving the state’s population and economic growth. As of 2019, the population of Massachusetts was more than 17 percent foreign-born. Massachusetts ranks fifth nationwide in highest net international immigration. Economically, immigrants in Massachusetts contributed $37.3 billion in spending power as of 2019, alongside nearly 80,000 immigrant entrepreneurs.
Immigrants further strengthen the economy by working across an array of sectors. In 2021 — as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to rage — immigrants across the country were 47 percent more likely to work customer-facing service jobs than native-born individuals. Yet immigrants also worked as doctors, lawyers, computer scientists, and much more. Immigrants played, and continue to play, a huge role in making Massachusetts the economic powerhouse it is.
Whether it’s in Lowell’s thriving Cambodian population, Chelsea’s deep Latino community, or Western Mass’s growing Ukrainian population, immigrants continue to prove a powerful, critical force in our Commonwealth.
To truly celebrate Constitution Day here in Massachusetts, immigration advocates, community members, and policy makers must take two key steps:
First, we all must encourage and empower immigrants to naturalize. Doing so will provide immigrants the strongest voice possible in our democracy. It will also inspire our newest residents to remain in Massachusetts in the long term, ensuring that we maintain economic vitality and the innovations that come from an international workforce.
Second, we must call on the state to increase resources that assist immigrants leading up to and throughout the naturalization process. We urge Beacon Hill to increase funding for the state’s Office of Refugees and Immigrants’ Citizenship for New Americans Program. We also urge the state to set aside additional resources for community organizations that educate immigrants on the citizenship process and help them prepare to naturalize.
Immigrants like Eva Ng make our state and country stronger. We must return the favor by breaking down barriers to the naturalization process.
Dr. Mitra Shavarini is the executive director of Project Citizenship. Ronnie Millar is the executive director of the Rian Immigrant Center. Jeff Thielman is the president and CEO of the International Institute of New England. Elizabeth Sweet is the executive director of the MIRA Coalition.