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story.lead_photo.caption Graphs showing citizenship application information.

Applications for U.S. citizenship have spiked in Arkansas -- and so has the backlog of unfinished cases -- amid a nationwide surge in legal permanent residents seeking citizenship through naturalization, a national report shows.

While Arkansas continues to see fewer applications than most of the country, its rate of growth over the past two years outpaced all but three states, according to federal data analyzed by a national group that helps immigrants complete the process.

Citizenship unlocks the right to vote and eliminates the possibility of deportation, two sources of motivation that intensified during the 2016 presidential election campaign and the early months of Donald Trump's presidency, said Mireya Reith, executive director of the advocacy group Arkansas United Community Coalition.

The coalition is "connecting the dots for the immigrant community between their concerns on policy conversations and the immigrant vote -- the Latino and Asian vote -- here in Arkansas," Reith said. "It's as much as a vote and, now, in this moment, it's deportation protection, because of the [immigration law] enforcement environment."

[U.S. immigration: Data visualization of selected immigration statistics, U.S. border map]

But immigrants who apply are waiting at least twice as long as previously for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to process their applications, according to Reith and Steve Sanford who, with Mosaic Church in Little Rock, helps people apply.

Ana Santiago, a public affairs officer with the federal agency, said the average processing time nationally for applications is slightly more than 8½ months -- up from what is typically between 4 and 7 months, depending on the location, she said.

"We just want to make sure the right person gets the right benefit," Santiago said. "We're not going to cut corners on national security to get the applications out. We're managing our resources, and we're trying to get everybody who has applied -- to get them sworn in in the most efficient manner possible."

Santiago, who did not know the average wait time in Arkansas, said the agency has allotted overtime and is working to fill vacancies.

Reith, who called the average processing time "ridiculous," said the coalition is advising some people applying for citizenship that they may not finish the process before the 2018 elections.

"We've never seen it at this level," Reith said. "This is by far the worst backlog that we've seen."

In the one-year period ending June 30, 2017, nearly 1,700 Arkansas residents submitted applications for citizenship, up from about 1,100 in the same span two years earlier, according to analysis of federal data by the National Partnership for New Americans as part of an October report.

That 54 percent jump ranked fourth in the country, behind Texas, New Mexico and Idaho. The national growth rate was 36 percent, according to the report.

Arkansas' backlog as of June 30 topped 1,100, more than twice as high as two years earlier, according to the report. The state's growth rate in the amount of pending applications ranked eighth in the country.

Legal permanent residents apply for citizenship with black ink on a 20-page application and by paying up to $725 in filing fees. Applicants must provide years of tax returns, answer six of 10 test questions correctly -- name one problem that led to the Civil War, for instance -- and undergo a background check.

Generally, green-card holders qualify for naturalization after five years, though that requirement is shorter if the resident is married to a citizen or the child of a citizen or has qualifying military service.

Naturalization culminates in an oath of allegiance ceremony -- Little Rock's last one was in September -- in which the new citizens renounce loyalty to their home countries and pledge to defend the U.S. Constitution.

Despite the jump in Arkansas applications, the volume remains small, making up roughly 0.2 percent of the nation's total. Arkansas' 1,700 applications were more than Alaska, Maine, Guam, Vermont, Delaware, Montana and the U.S. Virgin Islands but less than all other states and territories.

It's unclear how many Arkansas residents are eligible for naturalization. A 2013 Winthrop Rockefeller Institute report estimated that the state had 39,300 legal permanent residents. The N.Y.-based think tank Center for Migration Studies estimated that roughly 25,200 residents were eligible for naturalization in 2013, the 15th-lowest total nationally.

Sanford, executive director of evangelical alliance for immigration counseling at Mosaic Church, said the number of clients who reach out to him has tapered off after a surge that coincided with Trump's election.

"There was a lot of fear that legal permanent residents were going to lose certain privileges or lose their status altogether," Sanford said. "Mainly, it was ... because they wanted a more secure status than just being legal permanent residents."

Arkansas United Community Coalition, alongside Catholic Charities of Arkansas, in 2011 began promoting citizenship to legal permanent residents, frequently referred to as green-card holders, Reith said.

The groups also help immigrants navigate the legal process and connect them with study courses for an American civics test that is a prerequisite for naturalized citizenship, she said. They help about 200 legal residents file for citizenship each year, with a 93 percent success rate, Reith said.

The Trump administration has not curbed benefits extended to green-card holders, but rumors persist, Sanford said, noting that he fields phone calls on a "regular basis" from legal residents who are scared to leave the country.

"They're afraid [the U.S. is not] going to let them back in," Sanford said.

Citizenship and Immigration Services says legal residents can leave the country for brief periods without affecting their status, as long as they don't indicate they intend to abandon their U.S. residence -- for instance, by not paying income taxes, severing employment or cutting ties to their communities.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reached out to two legal permanent residents who are going through the citizenship process -- one applied in late 2016 and the other in March -- but both declined to comment on the record because they didn't want their names published.

"It's typical of the fears people have," Sanford said. "This is the first time in my experience that we've dealt with people who are legal that have fears."

A Section on 11/25/2017

Print Headline: State, nation see surge in citizenship sign-ups; Arkansas’ 54% gain U.S.’ 4th-highest

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