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Citizenship application spike follows election-year trend

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Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Citizenship class teacher Beth Kocsis laughs with her students while discussing their nationalities and opinions on American politics on Monday, May 23, 2016, in Whitehall.
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Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Htoo Eh of Whitehall listens during a citizenship class near his home on Monday May 23, 2016.
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Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Bhola Bhattarai listens as members of his citizenship class discuss their nationalities and opinions on American politics on Monday, May 23, 2016, in Whitehall.

Voting rights were a foreign concept for Htoo Eh nine years ago when he arrived in America.

Now Eh, who is applying for U.S. citizenship, can’t wait to exercise them. The Whitehall man said earning the right to vote is one of his biggest motivations in seeking to become an American.

“I had no vote, no human rights, no freedom,” Eh, 61, said of life in his native Myanmar in Southeast Asia, a country ruled by an oppressive military junta from 1962 to 2011. He spent 25 years in a refugee camp in Thailand before traveling to the United States.

He attends a citizenship class at Prospect Park Family Center in Whitehall, where students talk about presidential front-runners Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

About 700,000 people are naturalized as U.S. citizens annually, though the number of applications often increases during presidential election years, according to Homeland Security and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services data.

Data show the number of applications increased over the previous year in 17 of the past 27 election years, going back to 1908.

Naturalization applications from October through January increased 13 percent compared with the same period a year earlier, prompting some reports that the increase was a Trump-related phenomenon.

Trump has inflamed some voters and garnered support from others by saying that he would deport all of the country’s 11 million illegal immigrants, ban Muslim immigrants and build a large wall along the Mexican border.

When asked what he thought about the billionaire businessman, Eh shook his head and declined to comment.

Ana Gonzalez-Barrera, a research associate with the Washington-based Pew Research Center, said she would not assume that naturalization applications are up because of Trump.

“There’s always some speculation that (applications increase during) presidential electoral years because immigrants want to become citizens so they can vote, not necessarily because a candidate is controversial,” Gonzalez-Barrera said.

Other factors can have a bigger impact on the numbers, she said.

In 2008, records show applications decreased 62 percent over the previous year, when nearly 1.4 million immigrants applied to become citizens — the second-highest total since at least 1907. Gonzalez-Barrera attributed that largely to the application fee increasing from $330 to $595 that July.

This year, the fee is scheduled to increase to $725, but a rush isn’t expected because Homeland Security is implementing a sliding scale that will reduce the fee for lower-income immigrants, said Pittsburgh-based immigration attorney Ellen Freeman.

Applications tend to spike in April because it usually takes four to six months for them to be processed. That would give an applicant enough time to be naturalized, then register to vote for a November election, Gonzalez-Barrera said.

Most foreign nationals have to be in the country legally for five years before they can apply to become an American citizen. Once they do, they have to pass civics and English tests. Citizenship classes, such as the one Eh takes through the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council, help would-be citizens on both fronts. Some people in Eh’s class have become citizens but continue to attend classes anyway.

On average, about 1 million people a year become legal permanent residents in the United States, data show. About two-thirds of them go on to become citizens, Homeland Security studies show. Some take their time.

Venezuela native Jari Ravelo Simmel, 48, of Shaler came to Pittsburgh with her father in 1975, but she didn’t become a citizen until May 20 during a ceremony at the Senator John Heinz History Center. She works as an intellectual property analyst for a Cranberry company, and one of her sons serves in the Marines.

“This is an election year. It’s very important that we have our voices heard in one way or another,” Simmel said.

Fellow Venezuela native Alexandra Vaccaro, 30, of Washington came to the United States 14 years ago to attend Duquesne University and, like Simmel, became a citizen this month. She works as a physician’s assistant.

Vaccaro said she’s excited to vote in America, a right that she said she values more having learned about the struggle for women’s suffrage. With her vote, she said, she wants to help keep America from following the path of Venezuela, which is plagued by government corruption and restricted speech.

Mamadou Balde, 29, of Bloomfield, an attorney and real estate broker, has been in the United States for 25 years but became a citizen this month. His father brought him here from the Republic of Guinea in 1991, and he grew up in Moon.

“I think it means more to me now than it would have (years earlier),” Balde said of his citizenship. In particular, being able to vote is “what I’m most excited for. I think the older you get, the more you realize what your vote means.”

Brian Bowling and Tom Fontaine are Tribune-Review staff writers.

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