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WNC seeing rush to naturalization and ballot box

Source: WLOS Staff

ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- In the last three weeks the U.S. added more than 7,000 new citizens. What’s driving the push to become an American?

For many it's the presidential election and the desire to cast a ballot in what's become a very contentious race.

“This country has a lot of opportunities for everyone,” Noe Herrera said, a permanent U.S. resident originally from El Salvador.

They’re opportunities that interest Herrera, his wife, infant daughter, and son Bryan.

“When I come, to this country, zero English, zero, but I try to learn."

Noe's been a permanent U.S. resident for the last five years, proving he's got permission from the government to live here legally. It’s also the first step in the naturalization process, being a permanent resident. In December, as soon as he was eligible for citizenship, he applied.

“I want to do something for my little kids, right now,” Herrera said. “If you become a citizen you can, a lot of doors open for you and for your family.”

LONG-TERM IMMIGRANTS NOW SEEKING NATURALIZATION

Learning English brought "Eric" Briones to the U.S. from Costa Rica, but it was love that kept him here.

“My wife, my boy they are from here, and it's just they're pushing me to do it, especially because half of my life I've been here,” said Briones.

After 20 years of also being a permanent resident, he's reached out for help from the literacy council to make his application. The goal driving both men and many others toward citizenship is having their say this November in the presidential election. Both men, told us they want to vote.

Catholic Charities, the Literacy Council, and an immigration and naturalization lawyer, all say Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant message on the campaign trail, like the following statements…

“We’re building a wall, it’s going to be – no one’s going through my wall,” said Donald Trump at a campaign rally.

...is the reason they've seen three times as many immigrants seeking naturalization.

But, while their citizenship hangs in the balance, on camera the men stop just short of saying they'll vote against the republican nominee.

“I don't want to talk about that,” said Herrera.

“I think people are afraid, I do. I think people are afraid. I can't say how they're going to vote but they're Latinos, they're immigrants, and they want to vote for a reason,” said Erin Sebelius, director of the English for Speakers of Other Languages program at the Literacy Council.

According to a lawyer, it's more than just Latino immigrants looking to naturalize. Sebelius, at the Literacy Council, has a waiting list of 70 applicants for English tutoring.

“You've got to be able to answer like you've answered in the form, but be able to show that you understand what you're showing,” Sebelius explained.

On average, the Literacy Council helps 10 people to citizenship a year. In 2015, it nearly doubled and in just the first six months of this year, 12 have become citizens.

“There are now questions (on the naturalization application) about have you ever participated in any type of terrorist organization have you ever aided and albeit a terrorist group, have you sold weapons?” Sebelius said.

Attorney Robb Hill deals exclusively with immigration and naturalization. He told News 13, "I have been practicing immigration law since 2004. There is generally an increase in naturalization applications prior to an election. We have seen a larger than normal increase in applications this year. Nearly every individual volunteers that they are applying due to the prospect of a Trump candidacy. Many of the applicants are long time permanent residents who could have applied in years past but have not for various reasons. The Trump candidacy seems to be a vary significant motivation for those individuals," said Robb Hill.

Nationwide citizenship applicants have jumped 15 percent from June to December 2015, compared with the previous year. In North Carolina, naturalization is up 10 percent over the same period for the last two years.

PATH TO NATURALIZATION

In June, in Charlotte, Noe was among 74 individuals from 38 countries with a new pledge.

Herrera's dream is now a new future with unlimited possibilities.

“I wait for this moment for a long time. This is my great day,” Herrera said.

“You hear your name for the first time in this time, in this great country, it's really nice, I get excited with my family,” Herrera said.

A week later when we went back to Herrera’s home, there was a new ease, a peace of mind that was apparent.

“Right now, I'm feeling relaxed,” Herrera said.

Both his future and his family’s future seemed more certain.

“My hunger right now is to learn more English," Herrera said.

His son Bryan is under 16, and through his father’s naturalization process he becomes a citizen too, and is looking forward to middle and high school in Asheville.

Herrera's eyes are on a November ballot. At the naturalization ceremony, he also registered to vote.

“They have to hear your voice and your voice is your vote,” Herrera said.

Cost can be a barrier; just to fill out and submit the citizenship application can cost over $700.

If there are other issues or complications or you need an attorney, the cost can be around $5,000.

Catholic Charities is working in Asheville to help defray the application costs.

HELP NEEDED

The Literacy Council says they could help more people through the naturalization process, with more tutors, but they need volunteers willing to help. For more information on the requirements and how you can volunteer click here.

If you have an investigation you want the I-team to look into email us at I-team@wlos.com.

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