Just after President Donald J. Trump took office in January, the Mexican consulate in Sacramento held an immigration forum to help legal residents navigate their paths to U.S. citizenship.
“We had over 300 individuals show up,” said Amagda Pérez, co-director of the UC Davis School of Law Immigration Law Clinic. “That was huge.”
The event was one of dozens of similar immigration forums that have been packed with hopeful Americans-to-be. Since Trump was elected with a hardline agenda to deport undocumented immigrants and curtail legal immigration, many local immigrants have responded to fears of deportation or difficulty returning to the U.S. by seeking to become citizens.
In the months following the election, the Sacramento field office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services saw a sharp uptick in naturalization applications, according to the agency. The office, which serves 23 California counties, received 4,674 applications from January to March 2017, up from 3,902 applications from July to September 2016 and 3,557 from October to December 2016.
Statewide, field offices received 64,580 applications from January to March 2017, up from 50,193 applications for naturalization from July to September 2016.
The number of pending applications - caught between approval and denial - has also risen.
Locally, such pending applications have nearly doubled. From January to March 2016, the Sacramento field office had 6,085 pending applications. One year later, from January to March 2017, it had 11,340. Similarly, California field offices had 81,682 pending applications in the first three months of 2016 and 149,746 during that period in 2017.
While the Trump bump in applications is significant, it’s part of a long-term rise in people seeking citizenship. Both the Sacramento field office and other California field offices have seen an increase in applications for naturalization since 2015. The number of citizenship applications often rise in presidential election years as immigrants seek to vote. Applications also grew in 2016 because of a pending fee increase at the end of the year, said Blake Nordahl, supervising attorney of the McGeorge Immigration Law Clinic.
But citizenship applications received grew even faster in Sacramento during the first three months of 2017 than during the same period last year, even with no pending election or fee increase. From January to March 2017, the Sacramento field office received 4,674 applications compared to 3,963 received in the same period last year.
Those on the front lines said one reason immigrants are seeking to fortify their status is fear that the new administration may seek to change laws in ways that could jeopardize their status.
“One of the primary reasons people are telling us is there are so many changes in immigration law, they are worried,” Pérez said.
Dagoberto Fierros, community development analyst for the city of Winters, echoed that sentiment. Fierros said he’s hearing more people are afraid of changes in immigration law, regardless if they are documented or not. And Juanita Ontiveros, director of community advocacy, outreach and special projects for California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, said she is seeing more people finalizing their applications because they want to vote.
Pérez said people tell her the same thing, saying: “We understand now that it is very important to vote. We can’t be letting people make decisions for us.”