Massachusetts is experiencing a dramatic increase in the number of immigrants applying for US citizenship, driven by a contentious presidential election and an expanding array of services to help them apply.
From January to March nearly 8,000 people applied for citizenship in Massachusetts, a 30 percent increase from the previous quarter.
“It’s been an overwhelming surge,” said Veronica Serrato, executive director of the nonprofit Project Citizenship in Boston. “I assumed that it was the aftermath of our publicity. But at some point, it was something else.”
Some call it the “Trump effect,” the reaction many immigrants are having to GOP presidential candidate Donald J. Trump — and a desire to register to vote against him. Over the past year, Trump has attacked immigrants here illegally, disparaged Mexican immigrants as criminals, and vowed to ban Muslim travel to the United States.
“We hear the voices on the ground,” said Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. “People are terrified.”
The trend is echoing throughout New England. New Hampshire, for instance, had 542 citizenship applications last quarter, a 65 percent increase over the prior quarter, which ended in December, and one of the highest increases in the nation.
Nationwide, applications rose to 252,254 last quarter, a 34 percent increase from the prior quarter. Advocates say they hope the trend will create nearly 1 million potential new voters this year.
To vote in the presidential election, Massachusetts residents must register by Oct. 19, according to the secretary of state’s office.
Among those hoping to cast a ballot this year is Adalberto Thomas, a 54-year-old barber in Roslindale from the Dominican Republic. He took precious time off from work one recent day to visit Project Citizenship’s office in Faneuil Hall Marketplace, where volunteers helped him fill out the lengthy citizenship application.
“I’m interested in voting now,” he said as he sat at a table in the nonprofit’s brick-walled offices. “I think my vote can make a difference.”
Trump was also part of the motivation for Yariza Sanchez, 18, originally from the Dominican Republic. On Thursday, the day before her graduation from a Boston high school, she joined 100 other immigrants at US District Court to take the oath of citizenship. This fall, she will study business at Suffolk University.
“I don’t want Trump to win,” she said, shaking her finger side to side.
Thursday, Sanchez arrived at the ceremony with her mentor, Alejandra St. Guillen, the director of the City of Boston’s newly renamed Office for Immigrant Advancement, formerly known as the Office of New Bostonians.
For St. Guillen, the ceremony offered a personal glimpse at the fruits of years of attempts to boost citizenship numbers in Boston, where an estimated 48,000 people are eligible to apply. She said city officials, philanthropic foundations, law firms, and volunteers are all playing a role in the rising numbers by funding nonprofits or helping immigrants fill out forms. Boston recently installed citizenship application information in every public library. And the city helps host an annual Citizenship Day in September.
“It’s a combination,” St. Guillen said in an earlier interview of the rising applications. “I don’t think you can say this one factor is the reason.”
Roughly two-thirds of those who applied this quarter have been approved, but even this increase represents a fraction of the estimated 300,000 people in Massachusetts eligible to apply for citizenship. Nationwide, some 8.8 million people are eligible to apply, but most have not, according to Project Citizenship.
US Citizenship and Immigration Services spokeswoman Paula Grenier acknowledged the uptick, noting that the agency typically sees the highest numbers from March through May. But last quarter, the applications were 34.6 percent higher than the same quarter in 2015.
“USCIS has seen an increase in naturalization applications in the last few months compared to the same time last year,” she said.
To be eligible to apply for US citizenship, immigrants must be at least 18 and a legal permanent resident of the United States for at least five years, or three if they are married to a US citizen. They must pay a $680 in application fees and pass tests of their English skills and knowledge of US government and history.
Many immigrants find these requirements daunting, and nonprofits say they are increasingly shepherding immigrants through the process. For instance, they help people obtain fee waivers if they qualify.
Recently, Project Citizenship’s offices in Faneuil Hall Marketplace were busy with immigrants needing help. Phones rang off the hook. A few days ago, their shredder broke.
In January, the organization had to knock down part of a wall to expand the offices.
Immigrants said their reasons for applying go beyond the presidential elections: Some said it is easier to travel with an American passport. Others wanted to apply for government jobs. Still others simply wanted the security of being a permanent part of the United States.
Hector Guerrero, a 24-year-old from the Dominican Republic, said he wanted to apply for citizenship so that he could work as a police officer, like the New York police who saved him from violent gang members who chased him down a darkened street three years ago.
“It’s not because of Trump,” he said with a laugh.
Whatever the reason, Serrato, director of Project Citizenship, said she welcomes the chance to help people who remind her of her parents and grandparents, immigrants from Mexico who raised their children to prize education. Serrato, a lawyer, studied at Harvard University and then Boston University School of Law. “It’s been just a gargantuan growth,” Serrato said, in an interview in her office. Behind her the telephone said they had 79 missed calls.