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Houston organizations pledge to help eligible immigrants become naturalized

Written by on October 9, 2023

By Erin Slaughter, KTSU2 reporter

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner presents “Citizenship Day” proclamation to advocates of naturalization programs on September 19 at city hall.

The city of Houston, Harris County, National Partnership for New Americans, (NPNA), and numerous community and non-profit organizations held a media roundtable at city hall on Tuesday, Sept. 19, to highlight the initiatives being taken to help eligible Houston immigrants become naturalized.

Nearly 30 multicultural media outlets gathered to hear new and longstanding naturalized immigrants talk about the challenges they have had to overcome to become naturalized as advocators vowed to continue to help eligible immigrants become citizens.

Zenobia Lai, who became naturalized years ago, discussed how application fees have drastically increased since she first naturalized and stand as an obstacle for Houston area citizens longing to become citizens.

 “When first I applied for my citizenship, at the time, the application fee was $40, and now, as you all know, it is $725, which is a huge increase,” Lai said.

Zenobia Lai

In Suk Min, a 25-year naturalized immigrant from South Korea was one of the immigrants affected by the fee increase.

“As a first-generation immigrant, I was always busy trying to make a living, and due to a language barrier and financial hardship of having to pay attorney fees, I have been postponing applying for U.S citizenship,” she said.

Advocates for the “Naturalize Now, Houston” campaign stand outside the Houston City Hall Chambers.

With the help of Houston’s non-profit and community partners, Min not only received support with fees, but she also got assistance with the language barrier.

Woori Juntos, a Houston non-profit organization whose mission is to assist Korean and Spanish immigrants, helped Min when her language barrier began interfering with her livelihood.

 “I came to know Woori Juntos, a non-profit organization, when I was looking for someone to help me file for Medicare and Medicaid because I could not speak, read, or write in English,” she said.

Roundtable discussion.

The non-profit and community organization representatives said they are committed to helping eligible immigrants like Min navigate the process of obtaining citizenship.

Dayana Iza, the Texas program manager at Mi Familia Vota, said it took her mom about 12 years to start the citizenship process after coming to the U.S.

“Why?  Because like mentioned here, there were barriers that were stopping her, such as the English language barrier, the financial barrier, but also just the fact that for a lot of the people in our community, they do not even know where to start with citizenship,” Iza said.

Dayana Iza

The road to naturalization for many immigrants has not always been straightforward; however, despite the insurmountable obstacles that have prevented some from applying for citizenship sooner or not at all, the burning desire to feel a sense of belonging motivated one newly naturalized immigrant.

“In the midst of everything I was going through, I saw encouragement and love and felt something was happening here that I needed to be a part of,” Herve-Michel Jackson Bremaidou said.

When discussing what motivated him to apply for naturalization, Jackson Bremaidou, a three-week naturalized immigrant from Bangui, (Capital of the Central African Republic), said his desired result was not just naturalization but belief in America’s core values of justice and equality for all.

NPNA executive director Nicole Melaku speaking to KTSU2News reporters.

“At first, I felt stuck having to find a job to support myself and my studies, but I was seeing more and more about being around the people here, the great community.  It was the melting pot, and I received all that culture from people of different backgrounds, ethnicities, and it was something greater in it; it was a strength,” Jackson Bremaidou said.

The organization representatives that were present said giving immigrants that sense of belonging and making Houston, Texas, “the capital of citizenship” is the ultimate goal.

Nicole Melaku, a first-generation American and NPNA’s executive director, discussed the objective of increasing Houston’s naturalization numbers.

 “Through initiatives like community partners, expansion of capacities, and strong communication plans, we think we can actually reach those people and bring that number up, so maybe next year it’s 5 percent, and the year after that it’s 7 percent of the nation’s naturalization numbers are coming out of Houston,” Melaku said.

The non-profit and community partners said they will continue to help immigrants naturalize until the 300,000 eligible immigrants obtain their citizenship in Houston.

“It’s incredibly important to help people understand that there are other community members ready to help and encourage people to naturalize,” Melaku said after the roundtable.

Following the roundtable discussion, the entire group went into city council chambers, where several city council members and Mayor Sylvester Turner spoke about Houston’s global reach and presented a proclamation making Sept. 19 “Citizenship Day” in the Space City.

“Becoming a U.S. citizen is an important step towards full participation in our society.  Lawful permanent residents contribute significantly to our city’s cultural diversity and economic growth.  We are proud to collaborate with the National Partnership for New Americans (NPNA), Houston Endowment, and Harris County to support and encourage more individuals to pursue U.S. citizenship.  By doing so, we enhance Houston’s unity and prosperity.”

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner

NPNA, Mi Familia Vota, Woori Juntos, OCA-Greater Houston, SAAVETX Education, the City of Houston, Harris County, and many more groups have pledged to help train “Citizenship Community Navigators” to help those who want to become citizens understand the process. 

The Houston Endowment presented a $2.13 million grant to NPNA to strengthen and expand naturalization programming.  Ethnic Media Services was the leading organizer of the roundtable discussion.