Promoting Naturalization: The Way Forward by Damian Thorman


Sometimes I wish that anyone who has ever spoken against immigration, or claimed that immigrants don’t strengthen the fabric of America, could see what we just saw—a naturalization ceremony.

We witnessed something you could not see in a country like France or Japan. The theme of this conference, “Becoming American,” reflects a remarkable idea: that it is possible for anyone to become American, no matter where they were born.

To witness 29 people from 14 countries living out our national creed—e pluribus unum – is to understand the journey, the sacrifice, the pride, and the purpose of those Americans who are Americans by choice. 

With the 140 words of our oath of allegiance, they have concluded a process that, for many of them, has taken years or even decades.

That end is where I would like to begin.  Because I am convinced that the single most important thing we can do to advance immigrant rights in this country is devote more resources to helping eligible immigrants become citizens.


I’m here today on behalf of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.   

As you may know, the Knight brothers were in the newspaper business.  They owned dozens of newspapers, and believed deeply in having informed communities.

Today, much of Knight Foundation’s work is devoted to investing in journalistic excellence in the digital age—the information side of the equation.

But we’re also deeply invested in the second part of that equation: the communities themselves.   Our foundation is active in 26 of the communities where the Knights owned newspapers. We believe it is vitally important to have informed, engaged communities.  As John Knight said, we seek “to bestir the people into an awareness of their own condition…and  rouse them to pursue their true interests.”

And that is why immigrant integration is so important to us.

Today, in America, there are more than 12.6 million green card holders[1] who live in our communities, work in our communities, but will never truly and fully participate in our communities—until they are citizens.

They can’t vote.

And as we saw at recent pro-immigrant rallies, where immigrants feared to reveal their identities for fear of discrimination or deportation, the ability to speak out is limited.

So long as they can’t advance their own interests—either because of the fear or drawing attention to themselves, or because the ballot box remains closed to them – they will remain unseen to their leaders and their communities.   And our democracy will stray further from our ideal of being a representative democracy.

So that’s why Knight Foundation is involved.

The reason I’m so passionate about this issue is because I’ve worked on issues surrounding immigration for many years, as a prosecutor in Kansas City, as a staffer for then-U.S. Representative Bill Richardson, and now as National Program Director for Knight Foundation. 

I’ve seen how our country’s historically open arms have become increasingly closed to immigrants—with bureaucratic roadblocks, costly fees, and other hurdles at nearly every turn. 

And I’ve seen the injustice and exploitation that results when the protections of citizenship are lacking. 

One of my earliest memories is going with my parents when I was young to picket a store in Kansas City, Missouri.   The store was selling grapes that were harvested by migrant farm workers who were being exploited—and Cesar Chavez was there.

So while it’s an exaggeration to say that I was marching with Cesar Chavez at age 8, it’s not an exaggeration to say that there will be exploitation so long as immigrants don’t have a voice.

And I believe – and the foundation for which I work believes—the voice will ultimately come from citizens who carry the recent memory of being immigrants.


There are some who will question—understandably—the logic of focusing on naturalization when there are so many other pressing issues facing immigrants in America.

And it is true.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a time when there’s been a stronger, angrier, strain of nativism in our country. 

The appeals to fear, the fictitious “beheadings in the desert,” the truly vindictive legislative proposals we’re seeing in places like Arizona, and the venomous threats to repeal the birthright citizenship provision of the 14th amendment, argue for a throaty defense of immigration and immigrants writ large.

So at a time when millions of illegal immigrants live in constant fear of raids and have no clear path to legal residency…  when even legal immigrants face exploitation…   is this strategy putting un undue focus on the immigrants who are lucky enough to have obtained legal permanent resident status?

After all, they are already in the pipeline and enjoy advantages many of their fellow immigrants do not.

But that’s exactly why we believe this counterintuitive agenda is the right one.

  • One of the reasons that it’s “safe” for politicians to scapegoat immigrants is because while immigration numbers have gone up, corresponding naturalization rates have not.
  • As a result, it’s easy to paint an entire group as outsiders, part of the problem, rather than citizens and equally invested neighbors and members of communities in which we all live.  Politicians know they can score political points by attacking immigrants, and they can get away with it because no one will hold them accountable at the polls.
  • Think how much this dynamic would change if foreign-born citizens comprised a larger share of the electorate.   And think how significant the numbers we’re talking about are:   Roughly 8.5 million green card holders were eligible to seek U.S. citizenship as of 2005 but have not done so.
  • Now look at the number of states and races where a small handful of votes sways the outcome.  With more naturalized citizens voting, the sort of harsh rhetoric would threaten  the political survival of politicians foolhardy enough to use it.
  • They might just have to start coming up with constructive solutions for how to deal with immigration issues and immigrant needs, instead of engaging in destructive attacks. 
  • So we believe we need to increase naturalization because it’s the newest residents who will be the loudest voices for tomorrow’s immigrants.
  • Another reason we’re pursuing this strategy is because devoting more resources to naturalization does not detract from the pursuit of other changes that will help our country’s immigrants.
  • In many ways it advances them.  In encouraging and supporting immigrants through the process of naturalization, we will inevitably be equipping them with the skills and knowledge to improve their own lives and the lives of their families—becoming more successful examples of American integration, not balkanization.
  • As you know, more than half of immigrants who are otherwise eligible for citizenship don’t go through with the process because they have a limited ability to speak English—a fundamental prerequisite for integration.
  • According to the Center for Adult English Language Acquisition, almost half of the 1.2 million adults in federally funded adult education programs are there to learn English. Waiting lists are long and resources are not sufficient for the need. Fully two-thirds of immigrant students who need to learn English have no access to programs of any kind to help them do so.
  • As a report from the National Governor’s Association notes, limited English proficiency is a major barrier to advancement and better earnings for immigrants.  It found that average earnings improve as much as 10% with English fluency.
  • Right now, government programs that help people learn English are inadequate. If we dedicated more resources to increasing immigrant access to ESL classes—other immigrants, including those who do not hold green cards—would benefit hugely, both economically and in terms of their own prospects if they enter the naturalization process.
  • Pursuing naturalization guarantees legal rights and protections that legal permanent residents lack. 
  • Citizens can never be deported, and they are less vulnerable to the capricious whims of politicians or public opinion.  Naturalization is often the difference between freedom and fear.
  • Citizens qualify for federal jobs and for government benefits not available to noncitizens. Studies show that employers are often more willing to hire naturalized citizens than immigrants with green cards, even though both have the legal right to work in the United States.

Finally, this is a strategy that is realistic about our political prospects.  This is an incredibly hostile environment. 

Centering our public campaigns around the issue of naturalization is the most effective way to keep our agenda moving forward this environment. Encouraging legal residents to become full citizens is patriotism, not activism. 


For all of these reasons, Knight Foundation has dedicated millions of dollars over the years to funding programs that increase rates of naturalization, improve English-language education, and strengthen the local and national network of immigrant-serving organizations across the country.

We’ve partnered with the National Council of La Raza on a naturalization campaign in seven of our 26 Knight communities—through free media, citizenship drives and partnerships with local organizations, we helped nearly 10,000 green card holders become citizens.

The Ya Es Hora (YEH) campaign was conducted in cooperation with Univision and NALEO. YEH is a national campaign assisting the over 8.3 million eligible legal permanent residents get on the path towards U.S. citizenship.  

We’ve worked with PICO to reach out to religious congregations and garner support for naturalization. Our joint effort created free citizenship classes and assisted 2,500 immigrants in filling out applications for citizenship.

We’ve worked with the National Governors Association to develop model public policy programs on how governors can engage on naturalization policy.

We’ve worked with YMCA to create local model programs on naturalization and immigrant integration in 11 communities.

We’ve worked with the Naturalization Working Group to coordinate organizations that work in naturalization and connect them to the federal government. Their push for greater funding of naturalization resulted in $11 million in new funding this year.

We’ve worked with the National League of Cities to launch the Immigrant Integration Program to help mayors and other city officials more effectively handle the immigration issues they face. The initiative circulated information on successful city programs, provided training and education assistance and helped municipal governments promote naturalization and civic participation

And speaking of cities, Mayor Menino deserves real praise for his work in this area.  Over a decade ago, he established the Mayor’s Office of New Bostonians to reach out to the city’s immigrants. Through his initiatives, Boston has become a model for cities nationwide of how to proactively address the needs of immigrants and encourage them to become engaged members of their communities.


Of all the barriers to naturalization—the expense, the lack of legal counsel, the need for language proficiency—perhaps the greatest obstacle is the persistent belief that naturalization doesn’t matter. That it is merely a symbolic final step that isn’t worth the trouble.

But focusing on naturalization is an opportunity for us to be proactive, rather than defensive. Instead of reacting to the next bad court decision, the next draconian piece of legislation… we have an opportunity to champion an effort that will appeal to people regardless of their politics.

When some would yell, “Speak English!”—we can answer with, “Help us give more people the opportunity to learn English!”

So I’d ask you to consider funding efforts that advance the cause of naturalization.

I’d ask you to join Knight Foundation—so that we, together, can keep moving people towards citizenship.

And most of all, I’d ask you to imagine—imagine an America with 8.5 million new citizens, and think about what that would mean for our national debate, and national policies.

If you like the image in your head… and I know I do… let’s work together to make it a reality.

It was 50 years ago this month that one of Boston’s native sons, John F. Kennedy famously spoke about his faith, and his loyalty to America.

In that speech he made clear that while his faith—like others culture or upbringing—enriched his life, his ultimate loyalty was to the U.S.

In his words:  “… this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, … Today I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you — until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril.”

He concluded that speech by pointing to the fact that if he should win election, he would without reservation take that oath in which he pledged to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution—the same words we just saw our newest citizens speak.

In this country, immigrants are our doctors (one of every four), our teachers, our engineers, our laborers, our friends and neighbors.

It’s time to make many more of them our fellow citizens.

Thank you.

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— Damian Thorman, Sept. 29, 2010 at National Immigrant Integration Conference, Boston Mass.