When candidate Donald Trump promised to deport the 11.1 million undocumented immigrants living in the country, if elected president, few believed him.
But that changed drastically when Trump indeed won the presidency in November. Though he has since scaled down his deportation threat, limiting it to two or three million people, Trump’s original promise spread fear among foreign nationals, prompting many to seek citizenship — the only guarantee against expulsion.
Now, figures compiled by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) seem to bear out the conclusion that more permanent residents are applying for citizenship. In fiscal year 2015, for example, about 782,975 citizenship applications were filed. That number went up to almost one million last fiscal year when it looked like Trump was becoming a serious candidate and riding high on his deportation threats.
By the end of the first quarter of fiscal year 2017, which ran Oct. 1-Dec. 31, 2016 — when Trump was already President-elect — the number of citizenship applications received by USCIS reached 239,628, compared to 187,635 in the first quarter of 2016. That is a 27.7 percent increase.
“In the last three months, most of my clients who are lawful permanent residents, and who qualify to apply for naturalization, even if they have an issue with the English language, are applying to become U.S. citizens,” said Miami immigration attorney Wilfredo Allen. “They're eager to become U.S. citizens due to the unfounded fear of traveling outside the country and be forced to renounce their residence when they come back. Citizenship is the only shield against deportation.”
Citizenship is the only shield against deportation.
Wilfredo Allen, immigration attorney
When Trump signed one of his first executive orders on immigration, temporarily halting the refugee program and arrivals from six mostly Muslim countries, some American officials indicated that green card holders from those countries would be barred. It has since been clarified that green card holders are not affected, and Trump's temporary travel ban now seems headed for the Supreme Court after a federal appeals court recently upheld a ruling blocking the executive order.
Other immigration attorneys echoed Allen's analysis.
“We have noticed approximately a 20 percent increase over the last year in the number of applications we have submitted, during the period from January 2016 to April 2017,” said Eduardo Soto, a Coral Gables immigration attorney. “A lot of the people who come to see us indicate a concern with the current presidency and its apparent aggressiveness toward immigrants.”
Jorge Rivera, another Miami immigration attorney, agreed.
“There's no doubt there's more interest in becoming a citizen,” said Rivera. “Why? Because of the increased enforcement. There have been many cases of permanent residents coming back to the United States who have been detained at the border or at any airport, and they are giving permanent residents a harder time, if there is any criminal history.”
USCIS officials, however, said figures rise and fall from year to year and that it's difficult to pinpoint an overall reason for an increase.
“Application numbers ebb and flow from year to year and even within the year,” said Katie Tichacek Kaplan, a USCIS public affairs officer. “For example, we typically see the highest numbers March through May. In the end, the decision to naturalize is a deeply personal one and is ultimately an individual choice.”
Several immigrants who became citizens Friday at the USCIS Miami field office did not cite Trump as the reason for their decision to file for naturalization.
The chief reason they cited: that they have built their lives in the United States and want to stay here.
“Life pushed me to this,” said Marcus Rocha of Brazil. “I came with a working visa and then got a green card, and then I said ‘I can apply for citizenship.’”
Rocha delivered the pledge of allegiance in front of the other 161 new citizens from 30 different countries.
Paola Pineda of Argentina said she applied for citizenship because she has children born here and has made her life here.
“This country opened its doors to me 18 years ago and gave me many opportunities,” she said. “My children were born here and my life is here now.”
My children were born here and my life is here now.
Paola Pineda, of Argentina
Ana Laura Castillo of Mexico echoed the reasons cited by Pineda and Rocha.
“My children were born here,” she said. “This country offers great opportunities.”
Concern about deportations spiked among foreign nationals in the United States after Trump took office Jan. 20.
Concern turned into outright fear when five days later he signed his first major immigration executive order directing federal officers to target immigrants who have been convicted of a crime, charged with a crime or simply committed a crime.
Also, any foreign national found to be without papers in the country could be detained and placed in deportation proceedings.
This marked a sharp departure from the immigration policies of former President Barack Obama who was perceived as more indulgent toward undocumented immigrants. Under Obama, immigration authorities largely focused on foreign nationals who had been convicted of crimes.
Trump launched his presidential campaign on June 15, 2015 — and from the outset attacked Obama's immigration policies, and Mexico — source over the years of most undocumented immigrants.
“When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best,” Trump said the day he announced his presidential candidacy. “They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
Though he was roundly condemned by immigrant rights activists, may of whom predicted his early demise in the race, Trump's statement ultimately didn't seem to have instilled fear among legal immigrants.
The number of citizenship applications by the close of fiscal year Sept. 30, 2015 hovered around 782,000 — not much different from the 783,000 at the close of fiscal year 2014.
But Trump certainly made an impression on immigrants during the campaign with his repeated threats to deport undocumented immigrants and toughen overall immigration enforcement.
By the close of fiscal year 2016, on Sept. 30, the number of citizenship applications had reached 971,242 — a 24 percent increase over the previous year.
By the time he won the election in November, Trump was closely identified by supporters as the man who would rid the United States of undocumented immigrants and among anti-immigrant groups as someone who would reduce or restrict legal immigration.
At the close of the first quarter of fiscal year 2017, on Dec. 31, citizenship applications had hit 239,628 — a 27.7 percent increase over the number of citizenship applications filed in the first quarter, Oct. 1-Dec. 31, 2016.
Follow Alfonso Chardy on Twitter: @AlfonsoChardy