Rural America’s Long Road to Citizenship
With immigration offices few and far between, rural residents seeking naturalization must go to great lengths to obtain citizenship. The costs in time and transportation could discourage eligible residents from seeking to become citizens, says one Iowa applicant.
One hundred eighty-three miles. That’s how far Stephanie Rickels will travel one way from her rural Cascade, Iowa, home to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Des Moines, Iowa, where she is applying for U.S. citizenship. In the course of the three trips required to complete the naturalization process, she will travel more than 1,000 miles.
For rural residents eligible for citizenship, Rickels’ situation is far from unusual. There is only one immigration office in Iowa, as there is in many states. If you lived in Sidney, Montana, your nearest application support center would be 300 miles away, in Rapid City, South Dakota, meaning that you might be traveling 1,800 miles for the perks of citizenship.
At the quiet immigration office in Des Moines, Rickels’ handprints and picture are taken. “Fifteen minutes,” she said. Then she gets back on the road and drives 183 miles home.
Her second trip will last longer, an interview and written test that she must pass. On her third trip, she will take an oath of allegiance and go through the naturalization ceremony to officially become a U.S. citizen.
Rickels is French by birth. She is married to an American and has been eligible for citizenship for decades, but she never thought naturalization was worth the trouble until she felt compelled to vote as an American by the current political climate, including the anti-immigrant rhetoric of Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump.
“And at the state level, I don’t think the decisions lawmakers are making are in the interest of anyone who struggles, and they should be,” she said.
As a teacher of English language learners, she sees plenty of families that struggle.
Also as a teacher, Rickels can afford to take three summer days to travel to Des Moines. She knows that many of her students’ family members would be unable to take the time off work to complete naturalization. That is, if they had access to reliable transportation.
If not, they might be able to arrange travel through a rural transit authority. Where Rickels lives, three trips to Des Moines through the rural transit authority would cost at least $450.
All this adds up to an often-insurmountable cost for rural residents eligible for citizenship.
Across the country, the government estimates that 8.8 million people are eligible for citizenship. Of those, 653,416 went through the process in fiscal year 2014, the latest for which statistics are available through the government’s Office of Immigration Statistics.
From required English language and civics proficiency tests to the $680 cost and on-their-time scheduling, naturalization is not set up to be easy for anyone. Rural residents, however, face a particularly long road.
In 2014, 6,125—less than 1 percent—of newly-naturalized citizens lived in “micropolitan” or noncore counties. These are the nation’s most rural. The don’t have a city of 10,000 residents or more, and they aren’t part of the commuting zone for a county that does.
While the majority of immigrants eligible for citizenship still live in urban areas, increasing numbers are moving further into the countryside. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, in 1990, nearly three-quarters of U.S. immigrants lived in California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York and Texas. Twenty years later, the proportion of immigrants in these leading states fell to 65 percent, while the total number of immigrants in the U.S. doubled, according to census data.
As more immigrants located outside urban centers, more of those eligible for citizenship will face longer distances to travel to Immigration Service offices, and more are likely to be dissuaded from naturalization. That means that rural growth from immigration could translate more slowly into rural votes.
Rickels said that some services have improved: Years ago, she had to travel to Omaha, Nebraska, for immigration and naturalization services, a 314-mile drive.
Legal residents such as Rickels “can do everything a normal American can do, yet we can’t vote,” Rickels said. Besides voting, citizenship confers benefits such as sponsoring family members, travel freedom, and qualifying for certain government benefits and jobs.
Rickels is far from the only person applying for U.S. citizenship after a long legal residency. Across the country, offices already face huge backlogs of applications. Before the 2008 elections, naturalization services faced a years-long backlog.
Even under normal, five-month processing times, it would probably be too late to apply for citizenship now if you wanted to vote in the November 8, 2016, election. As of the beginning of July, the Des Moines U.S.C.I.S. office was working on applications from August 2015. If processing times remain nearly a year, it would mean that prospective Iowa citizens would have had to start the application process well before that state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses.
Rickels will spend at least 18 hours driving and $100 in gas in addition to the $680 fee and considerable challenges faced by naturalization hopefuls. As she adds up the costs, Rickels still doesn’t know if this long road will let her participate in the presidential election. She has her fingers crossed.
After all this, “I better be able to vote,” she said.
Sara Millhouse is the director of the McCoy Public Library in Shullsburg, Wisconsin, and a former editor of weekly newspapers in eastern Iowa and southwestern Wyoming.