Immigration

$5.8 million to go toward naturalization services in Harris County

These efforts are part of the “Naturalize Now, Houston!” initiative which launched in September last year. Some of the funding will be used to hire 10 new employees to focus on the naturalization effort.

Harris County immigration services
Dylan Allen

Harris County Commissioners have announced $5.8 million to go toward naturalization services in the county.

Funding for these services will come mostly from the Houston Endowment, and also partly from federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds. The funds will be used for a partnership between the Galveston-Houston Immigration Representation Project (GHIRP) and Harris County Public Library's naturalization services, as well as other non-profits.

There are more than 300,000 immigrants eligible for citizenship in the county, officials said. Linda Stevens is a Division Director for Harris County Public Library and said the library has always had citizenship classes, but they are in high demand.

"We've often had waitlists, we've had classes that are full, we just weren't able to meet the need of the community," Stevens said.

The GHIRP helps eligible individuals through the application process that will be submitted to immigration, all the way through the interview. Chiqui Sanchez Kennedy is the Executive Director and Co-founder of GHIRP, and said GHIRP can also sometimes help individuals connect to an English class or find an organization to help pay for application fees.

"Many people express the fear of ... speaking in English during the interview to become a citizen, the civics exam also, and more than anything, the [filing] fee," Sanchez Kennedy said.

The library plans to use some of the funds to hire 10 new employees evenly spread throughout each precinct to focus on the naturalization effort. Linda Stevens said the library also plans to focus on areas that have a high number of eligible residents.

"We have mapped out the areas where the most residents are... that are eligible and in need of this service so that we can make sure that our efforts concentrate on those areas," she said.

Stevens said some of their strongest citizenship programs are in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese, but she said the library hopes to expand to other languages as well.

These efforts are part of the "Naturalize Now, Houston!" initiative which launched in September last year. Harris County Commissioner Lesley Briones said the county currently leads the nation in the number of naturalizations.

"[Naturalization] is expensive, complicated, and difficult, so this is why this program matters: because there's so many people, with a little bit of help, can help get across that finish line," Briones said.