Fear of interacting with federal immigration officials is scaring off immigrants eligible for citizenship from becoming Americans, leaders at the Littleton Immigrant Resource Center told U.S. Rep. …
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Fear of interacting with federal immigration officials is scaring off immigrants eligible for citizenship from becoming Americans, leaders at the Littleton Immigrant Resources Center told U.S. Rep. Jason Crow on April 15.
Almost 900 immigrants have become American citizens since 2005 thanks to help from the Littleton Immigrant Resources Center, which provides services like citizenship test classes, English classes and citizenship application preparation assistance, said Glaucia Rabello, the center’s director.
But immigrants with green cards -- legal permanent residents -- are increasingly holding off on pursuing full citizenship amid a climate of fear driven by national politics, Rabello told Crow during a visit to the center by the congressman, who represents Colorado’s 6th Congressional District.
“They see all kinds of bad news, and they’re afraid,” Rabello said. “Every day they’re seeing images in the news of people being detained or deported. Many have told us they’re going to wait for the next presidential administration. We tell them: If you’re a legal permanent resident, you have nothing to fear. You can’t be deported because the government doesn’t like you.”
The LIRC will likely help around 150 legal permanent residents pursue full citizenship this year, Rabello said, down from a peak of around 200 in 2016, including what she called a particularly strong spike after that November’s presidential election was won by Donald Trump.
The LIRC’s would-be clients aren’t alone in their fear, said Deborah Cannon, the Colorado spokesperson for United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
“Yes, there’s an increased fear in the immigrant community, but there doesn’t need to be,” Cannon said. “(Citizenship classes) are a safe place.”
Crow called the climate of fear concerning.
“There are a lot of threats to our immigrants and refugees, and this administration is doubling down on its more extreme policies,” Crow said, citing controversy over immigrants claiming asylum on the Mexican border. “These are policies that aren’t consistent with the values of our community … the strength and vibrancy of our community comes from our diversity.”
Crow’s visit comes at a challenging time for the LIRC, which was denied a recurring grant last year, leaving the City of Littleton to backfill its funding.
The LIRC was founded in 2005, and initially connected immigrants with community resources in a limited manner, but in 2012 it received a $250,000 biennial grant from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to greatly expand its offerings.
The center won renewals of the grant in 2014 and 2016, providing for a host of English-language classes, citizenship test prep courses, and payroll for teachers and staff.
But USCIS declined to renew the grant in 2018, saying that while the LIRC scored high marks in most criteria, it fell short of student attendance goals for follow-up tests after citizenship classes.
“Applicant identified the main barriers to student attendance being work schedules, transportation challenges, and child care, but failed to adequately address solutions to them,” according to a letter from USCIS explaining the grant denial.
The letter says USCIS received 80 grant applications in 2018. The agency’s website says they awarded grants to 40 immigrant assistance groups last year.
Rabello said the declining demand for citizenship services amid the culture of fear makes boosting post-test numbers difficult, and added that inadequate test attendance is a stubborn problem given the realities of many immigrants’ lives.
“Many of our clients have three jobs,” Rabello said. “They don’t have cars. They have kids. People have other priorities, and getting them to come in for a post-test after they’ve completed citizenship classes can be difficult.”
Rabello said the center is working on boosting post-test attendance, possibly by imitating other groups that offer gift cards for test completion.
In previous years, the $250,000 grant was spread over two years at a time, with the City of Littleton matching the grant with $125,000 a year in general fund money.
With the loss of the grant, however, the city is covering the whole cost of the center, but Littleton Mayor Debbie Brinkman said she’s not sure how long the city can keep paying.
“It’s a substantial amount of money and it’s not a primary service,” Brinkman said. “It’s not public safety or infrastructure. Those are our priorities, and they’re underfunded already.”
Still, Brinkman said she believes the center does important work.
“We have people who want to become American citizens,” Brinkman said. “They want to learn English. They want to understand how to live and work in America. Public libraries support those goals. Who else is going to do it?”
The LIRC is busily pursuing a wider range of funding through other foundations and grants, with the goal of reducing dependence on city and federal dollars, said Tim Nimz, Bemis Library’s director.
“That’s the direction we got from city council,” Nimz said. “We want the city to draw back. That’s our task this year.”
Rabello said she is hopeful other funding will emerge, and she plans to apply for the federal grant again this summer.
In the meantime, Rabello said she would like to see more would-be Americans come through the door.
“We have to stop feeding the fear,” Rabello said. “It’s not helping.”
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