More than half of the immigrants in Massachusetts are now US citizens, according to the latest census estimates, crossing a critical threshold that brings with it the right to vote, run for political office, and apply for certain scholarships and federal jobs.
Slightly more than 500,000 of the 983,000 foreigners in Massachusetts had taken the oath to become citizens in 2011, the most recent year available.
Analysts say the increase in new citizens has been building here and nationally for years, pushing the number to record highs in the United States. It has been fueled by citizenship drives in community centers and union halls, faster application processing by the federal government, and a strong desire among immigrants to participate in their communities.
“Every year we’re adding 20,000 naturalized citizens to the population of Massachusetts,” said Joel Barrera, deputy director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, a planning agency, and a founder of the Commonwealth Seminar, which teaches minorities about state government to encourage them to get involved or run for public office.
“People are settling into our community, opening businesses here, and becoming citizens,” he said. “The bottom line is people want to be here and become Americans.”
Nationwide, about 45 percent of immigrants are US citizens, a trend driven by immigrants from Asia and Latin America and by women, who in 2011 accounted for more than half of new citizens nationwide, according to a federal report.
The vast majority of the 983,000 immigrants in Massachusetts are here legally. Illegal immigrants number about 160,000, or 16 percent, according to 2010 figures from the Pew Hispanic Center.
To apply for citizenship, immigrants must be over 18, be a legal resident, and have lived in the United States at least five years, or three if married to a US citizen, and pass a background test that confirms that they are a person of good moral character.
Applicants must pay a $680 fee, fill out an application, and submit to a fingerprint check and interview. An immigration officer will test their ability to read, write, and speak basic English. Finally, they assemble to take an oath of citizenship.
In 1986, only 6,187 immigrants in Massachusetts became citizens, but by 2011, that figure had more than tripled to 22,812. The increase has filled citizenship ceremonies at Fenway Park, TD Garden, and at least twice a month, in Faneuil Hall.
“That’s our goal,” said Denis Riordan, the district director of USCIS in Boston. He said the agency has reached out to schools and other groups to promote citizenship classes. “The immigration officers are rooting for the person to pass.”
Nationwide, the number of new citizens has hit record highs, as well. From 2001 to 2010, US officials naturalized more than 6.5 million immigrants nationwide, the most in a single decade in US history.
On Wednesday, the newest citizens in Massachusetts gathered to take the oath in the pale yellow sanctuary of the African Meeting House, part of the Museum of African American History on Boston’s Joy Street.
For immigrants, the application process requires years of studying and frustration — a Brookline physician taking the oath Wednesday waited 14 years — and many are happy to have the final step behind them.
But the ceremony is also a chance to reflect on the history of the nation they are joining and the possibilities before them.
Beverly Morgan-Welch, the museum’s executive director, told the new citizens they were taking the oath in the building that housed the movement to end slavery in the United States. Judith Dein, a United States magistrate judge who swore them in, stood in her black robes and told them her grandparents were immigrants who toiled in sweatshops in New York City.
Members of the group came from 29 countries. Some fled war and brutal repression. Others left family and friends for a new start in the United States.
“I am a citizen now,” Rangtom Tuikoh, a 28-year-old cook from Burma, said after the ceremony, glowing in a business suit. He said he fled his country when it was run by a military regime that renamed it Myanmar, and came to America to feel safe.
“I just feel so happy,” he said.
Ruth Desta and her husband, Meselework Tefera, posed for pictures after the ceremony, overjoyed to finally become citizens after winning the visa lottery in Ethiopia. Their adjustment has not been easy: She was a teacher in Ethiopia and now works as a cashier at Goodwill. He had been a chauffeur; now he is a janitor.
But in America, they say, they can dream that their children, 3 and 5, will have more opportunities than they did.
“My son says, ‘I’m a doctor,’ ” said Desta, 35, beaming beside her husband, 40. “My daughter, too.”
Meselework Tefera said he was considering changing his first name to Paul to better fit in. Told his name had a nice ring to it, he shook his head. “I’m going to change it,” he said.
Advocates for immigrants say the increase still has much room to grow because as many as 8.5 million immigrants nationally and as many as 300,000 in Massachusetts are eligible to apply for citizenship but have not. Many are calling for a reduction in fees, which have soared to $680 from only $95 in 1997, and more state funding for English and citizenship classes.
It is unclear why many eligible immigrants have not applied for citizenship in Massachusetts, but reports issued this month by the Pew Hispanic Center and the National Partnership for New Americans offer possible reasons, such as immigrants’ struggles with the English and civics test, lack of time to study for the test, and the higher cost of applying for citizenship.
“We think we can do much better,” said Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition and cochairwoman of the National Partnership for New Americans, which promotes citizenship. “We want to promote citizenship and we as a country need to reduce the fees. We think that would make a huge difference and we as a country would really increase the numbers.”