The District plans to help up to 2,000 green-card holders who work for the D.C. government, and their family members, apply for U.S. citizenship, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said Tuesday.
Speaking at a naturalization ceremony Tuesday morning, Bowser said the city is joining with the National Immigration Forum to provide information sessions, legal help, assistance finding language classes and coaching for the citizenship test. She said she hopes the program would inspire area businesses to make similar commitments to their employees.
The District is the eighth city to participate in the program, joining Los Angeles, Houston, Miami and others, said Jennie Murray, director of integration programs at the National Immigration Forum.
Green-card holders pay as much as $2,000 for legal services to become citizens, meaning a family of four could save as much as $8,000 in legal fees as a result of the District's participation in the program, Murray said.
The Bowser administration estimates there are about 20,000 District residents who are eligible for naturalization but have not started the application process to become citizens. Officials said they did not know how many of the city's 36,000 employees are green-card holders and would be eligible for the program.
"The privileges of citizenship are many, but so are the obligations," Bowser told 121 immigrants who were naturalized during a ceremony in U.S. District Court, where she announced the partnership. "Especially over the last year, every American has been challenged to define and preserve the values we hold dear," Bowser said, alluding to President Trump's election without mentioning the president by name. She also celebrated the District's anti- discrimination laws and said every resident, regardless of their citizenship status, should feel safe reporting crimes to D.C. police.
Days before Trump took office, Bowser was part of a group of leaders in heavily Democratic cities who launched legal-defense funds for undocumented immigrants to help them fight deportation. Unlike funds in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, the District's $500,000 fund does not cover representation for detained adults, which advocates say leaves some of the city's most vulnerable residents with slim chances of fighting deportation.
Bowser's office says the scope of the program is limited by Republicans in Congress, which has oversight over the District.
Some activists have criticized Bowser for not publicly condemning a September raid in which 14 undocumented residents were arrested as part of a crackdown by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in cities that oppose President Trump's immigration policies. Bowser's administration said it shared concerns about the raid and maintained its commitment to being a "sanctuary city."
Sapna Pandya, executive director of the immigrant rights group Many Languages One Voice, said the new program to help green-card holders become citizens will not affect the "vast majority of members of the District's immigrant workforce," many of whom are not living in the country legally.
"If the District really wants to help immigrant workers, it should be extended to folks who are here on TPS, through DACA or who might be undocumented," said Pandya, referring to residents who received Temporary Protected Status designation or qualified for the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Fiona Athie, an anthropologist from Mexico and England who became a U.S. citizen Tuesday, said she did not know about the details of the partnership but supports policies that make it easier for residents to earn their citizenship.
"In my neighborhood in Columbia Heights, I have many neighbors who I know find the process scary and confusing," said Athie, 35, who moved to the District in 2013 and said she applied for citizenship so she could be able to engage in American politics.