A new report shines light on Ventura County’s lackluster naturalization rate for immigrants who are eligible to become U.S. Citizens, citing longer-than-average wait times and distance between U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) field offices as factors.

The report dubbed “The State of New American Citizenship” published by Boundless, a Seattle, Washington-based technology company which helps families navigate the immigration system, says that Oxnard, Thousand Oaks and Ventura (and the surrounding area) has an estimated 42,521 green card holders. In 2018, 2,216 individuals became naturalized, just 5.2 percent of those eligible, making it one of the lowest rates of naturalization in the country, the average being around 10 percent.

The report cites several barriers to becoming naturalized, none of which are unique to the city. In fact, nationwide, naturalization rates have dropped as waiting periods increase at every stage of application.

USCIS, which processes visas, green cards and naturalization applications, has seen processing times at all levels double and sometimes triple since 2016. A spike in naturalization applications occurred 2016-2017 but returned to normal in 2018, creating what the report calls a “surging backlog” that has been inefficiently managed, claims the report.

Green cards can be issued in several ways, via a U.S. citizen spouse, family-based and employment based. Following a two-year conditional period, applicants must re-apply to receive a green card which is good for 10 years. Waiting times for this application, the I-751 (Petition to Remove Conditions), jumped from an average of 9.1 months in Fiscal Year 2016 to 16.1 months in 2018, according to the report. The USCIS, faced with the reality that green cardholders were finding themselves with expired cards, issued extension letters good for up to one year further for applicants awaiting processing. Many of these extension letters themselves expired, leaving applicants with only one option: to visit a USCIS field office.

The nearest USCIS field office from Oxnard is in Chatsworth, which as of Feb. 11 wasn’t accepting walk-ins or so-called InfoPass appointments.

If this feels confusing, convoluted and discouraging to you, you’re not alone.

Lucas Zucker, policy director for the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy, says that across the country, cities with large immigrant populations are facing similar issues as Ventura County due to lack of access to field offices and long processing times, while also pointing a finger at the cost of becoming naturalized.

“It’s an arduous process, it’s also an expensive process,” said Zucker. An applicant can spend up to $11,000 in fees over the path to becoming a U.S. citizen while filing multiple petitions regarding everything from eligibility to work to being able to return to the country should one leave for a period of time, to visit family or take a vacation, for instance. Hiring a lawyer, taking time off of work or utilizing a service such as the one that Boundless offers can add up as well. “If it’s going to be expensive and you live paycheck to paycheck like in the agriculture field and it’s going to take a long time and be an arduous process, some people may not go for it.”

Zucker said that lobbying the USCIS to open a field office in the Oxnard area would go a long way toward encouraging local green card holders to take the next step. The desire to do so has to be there, however, and Zucker said that he feels that the current administration isn’t too keen on making the process easier.

“Certainly in much of this country’s history it was much easier to immigrate to the U.S.,” said Zucker, alluding to families who in the past could be processed and receive paperwork through places like Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay. “We have over time built this kind of maze-like process that punishes immigrants and makes it difficult to move to the U.S. and build a life here. I think it really requires a rethinking of what we want out of our immigration system. Do we want one that is just and helps people start a new life and be part of the American dream, or an immigration system that punishes people and intentionally tries to make life difficult for them? I think the latter is what we’ve created, unfortunately.”

Eder Gaona-Macedo, executive director of Future Leaders of America based in Oxnard, says that an issue that may be preventing some green cardholders from applying for citizenship is fear.

Eder Gaona-Macedo

Gaona-Macedo says that his journey began in the year 2000 when he was 12 via a family-based green card application. In 2009, Gaona-Macedo’s application was approved and he became eligible to apply for citizenship in 2015, becoming naturalized in 2016. His mom, contemplating applying for her citizenship, is afraid of the difficulties associated with the language and civics tests that an applicant is required to pass, says Gaona-Macedo.

“She wants to do it, it’s just that she has to think of whether or not she can afford it and, secondly, the language barrier is another big point that she double thinks, she doubts herself about,” said Gaona-Macedo. “When you go down there [to the USCIS field office in Chatsworth] to take the exam you have to be one-on-one with these immigration officials and sitting down with a [Department of Homeland Security] official speaking a language that you might not be so fluent in and then having to learn 100 questions. It’s intimidating.”

Gaona-Macedo also points to the national rhetoric regarding immigration and specifically to President Donald Trump.

“The biggest barrier and mind block for me wasn’t necessarily the money, it wasn’t necessarily the language, but the fear factor — and I was able to do it right before the Obama administration ended,” said Gaona-Macedo. “I can see why they’re scared.”

Future Leaders of America has worked with low-income youth encouraging them to vote. Gaona-Macedo says that doing so has emphasized the importance of becoming a citizen in order to exercise that right.

“That’s what really sparks the interest and I think that’s what I’ve seen is most effective,” said Gaona-Macedo. “We don’t get into the politics of it, we just talk about the power of voting, and becoming a citizen is part of it.”

To read the Boundless report, visit www.boundless.com/american-citizenship-report/.