Naturalization with Marita Etcubanez

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"As you can imagine, it's a very diverse community, so we don't have the luxury of only doing outreach in one or two languages."


Oct 03, 2016

There are over 8.6 million immigrants in the U.S. today who are eligible to become citizens but have not pursued this goal. Asians make up nearly 17% of those eligible to apply. A discussion on citizenship through naturalization with Marita Ecubanez of Asian Americans Advancing Justice. Visit the Asian Americans Advancing Justice - AAJC on the web, on Facebook or follow on Twitter.

Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Traynham: There are over 8.6 million immigrants in the U.S. today who are eligible to become citizens but have not pursued this goal. Asians make up nearly 17% of those eligible to apply. Hello, everyone, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Robert Traynham, and joining me today is Marita Etcubanez, the Director of Strategic Initiatives at Asian Americans Advancing Justice. Marita, welcome to the program.

Etcubanez: Thank you.

Traynham: It's lovely to have you here. I thought that statistic that I mentioned a few moments ago was pretty interesting, that individuals that are here, they're eligible to become citizens, but they choose not to. Why is that the case?

Etcubanez: I think a lot of it is lack of information...

Traynham: Okay.

Etcubanez: ...lack of familiarity with how things work here, which is why my organization, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, AAJC, is working with a larger nationwide effort, the New Americans Campaign, to provide legal assistance and information to help as many people as possible to naturalize.

Traynham: Naive question -- How do you find them?

Etcubanez: How do we find the people who are -- That's a great question. We actually are still struggling to get the word out. It's really difficult to reach, in particular, the Asian-American community because many of the people we want to reach don't speak English well. As you can imagine, it's a very diverse community, so we don't have the luxury of only doing outreach in one or two languages. We have to do outreach in multiple languages through multiple media outlets. A lot of it's word of mouth. So, we've only been doing this work -- my organization here in the D.C. area -- for about a year. So, we're hoping that the people we help will continue to tell their friends that, "Hey, there's this great group. The lawyers really know what they're doing. They're happy to help you through the process, so you should check them out."

Traynham: And it sounds like you have to build trust within the community, which thus in the process helps spread the word, too, as well...

Etcubanez: Absolutely.

Traynham: ...because it's always a good thing when your family or friend member is saying, "You know what this is the organization that I've heard of. You should check them out." I'm curious, Marita. Is it just in the Washington, D.C., area, or is all across the country, in terms of raising the awareness about your program and initiative?

Etcubanez: So, we're working here in D.C., but as I mentioned, we're part of a larger campaign. The New Americans campaign is running across the country, in many cities, and we're not the only one. There are a lot of organizations right now really focused on boosting citizenship, helping people become civically engaged. Obviously, it's an election year, so that's a big part of it.

Traynham: That was my next question. Clearly, one of the benefits, perks -- however you want to phrase that -- of naturalization is the right to vote, which is to exercise your democratic right to vote, particularly if you're coming from a country or from a culture where that is frowned upon in many, many ways. So, here we are in 2016. We are in the middle of a very heated presidential campaign. Is there anything that you're doing between now and election day to help motivate people to make sure that their voices are heard?

Etcubanez: Mm-hmm. So, right, part of it is encouraging people to naturalize. Unfortunately, the process takes enough time that, if you're just starting the process now, you won't be naturalized in time to vote this election cycle.

Traynham: How long does it take to naturalize?

Etcubanez: So, we've been hearing about six to eight months here. It varies in different parts of the country. In some places, it's a little faster, but obviously we're in September. But still, we encourage people to apply, so if not for this November, for the next election cycle. As colleagues that do election work in Virginia tell us all the time, there's an election in Virginia every year. But so, in addition to encouraging people to naturalize and helping to inform them about what the benefits are, talk to them about the basic eligibility requirements, we're also trying to encourage people to register to vote and then obviously to go out and vote. So, my organization has put together educational materials. We have a voters guide that's really geared towards first-time voters, includes information on where they can find out about how to register, where to go in all the states.

Traynham: You know, Marita, I think it's important to recognize this is purely nonpartisan. This is about making sure that you have the right -- and informed to vote, not encouraging individuals to vote for candidate A or candidate B.

Etcubanez: Thank you. No. I appreciate that. We are a nonprofit organization, so of course all of our work is nonpartisan. We really just want to make sure that people are participating.

Traynham: Excellent. Marita, thank you very much for joining us.

Etcubanez: Thank you. -

Traynham: Really appreciate it. -Keep up the great work.

Etcubanez: Thanks.

Traynham: And thank you for joining us for this edition of "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Robert Traynham. Have a great day. We'll see you next time. Bye-bye.

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