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Becoming an American citizen

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    Graph by David W. Rowe of the TIMES NEWS
Published February 02. 2013 09:02AM

Darren Behan came into the world in Dublin, Ireland, on March 18, 1973, into a struggling economy. Five years later, the wee lad's parents, Noel and Bernadette Behan, took their family on a five-week vacation to the United States. About a year later, the family, Noel, Bernadette, Darren, then 6, and his brother Mark, then 7, made this country their home.

On Oct. 20, 2000 21 years and four days after moving to America Darren Behan became a naturalized American citizen.

Behan, who is the owner/chef of Mollie Maguires Pub & Steakhouse, Jim Thorpe, is among the growing number of foreign-born people who have chosen to become American citizens.

The number of naturalized citizens had grown in the United States from about six million in 1994 to about 16 million in 2011, about 166.6 percent, according to a study by the Immigration Policy Institute.

Locally, the numbers have increased. According to the U.S. Census, the number of naturalized citizens grew statewide by 104,668, or 40.7 percent, between 2000 and 2011. Even closer to home, the numbers grew by 425, or 56.3 percent, in Carbon County, and by 58, or 6 percent, in Schuylkill County, during the same period.

"Looking at naturalized citizens as a share of the overall immigrant population, however, the percentage has fluctuated over time, falling from about 50 percent in 1980 to a low of 30 percent in 1994. The share has been rising gradually ever since and now stands at about 40 percent," said Michelle Mittelstadt of the Migration Policy Institute.

Over the decades, America has reaped the benefits of those who chose to become citizens. They include Russian-born author Isaac Asimov; Canadian comedian Dan Aykroyd; Italian scientist Enrico Fermi; Mexican actress Salma Hayek; Israeli musician Gene Simmons; Welsh actor Anthony Hopkins; and Scottish inventor Alexander Graham Bell.

Making America home

Leaving one's birthplace for another land is often a difficult decision, but the reasons are often compelling: Immigrants flock to the United States for a chance to make a better life for themselves and their families. Naturalization allows legal immigrants the right to vote, run for public office, sponsor relatives for immigration and more quickly bring spouses to the United States. It also makes it easier to get jobs. A number of public sector jobs, for example, require citizenship. Also, many employers prefer to hire American citizens. Further, many immigrants seek naturalization because they want to make a commitment to their new home.

For Behan, who was naturalized in U.S. District Court, Scranton, with his wife Jennifer and children, Declan and Molly, at his side, the decision to become a citizen was easy.

"I just felt it was the right thing to do. This country has been good to me, so I wanted to become a permanent part of it," he says.

The right to vote was a driving force behind his determination.

"During a local election year, (District Judge) Edward Lewis came into my family's restaurant for lunch. During a conversation, he asked me if I would support him with my vote on election day. Being slightly embarrassed, I had to explain that although I was a permanent resident of the U.S., I could not vote because I had yet to apply for U.S. citizenship," Behan says. "I felt bad that I could not support all the local politicians that constantly, and currently continue to support my family business. So I started the (naturalization) process immediately.

"Back then, everything had to be filled out on real paper and in person (as opposed to using the Internet or e-filing). Many days I would have to drive down to Philadelphia to 1600 Callowhill St. to the Immigration office, waiting on very long lines, paying fee after fee, and that didn't include all the parking tickets. But it was all worth it.," he says.

"Now I can exercise my right to vote and have never missed the opportunity to do so since the day I was sworn in," Behan says proudly.

Behan's parents, who also have been naturalized, and his mother-in-law, Kathleen Kuzo, and a friend, John Zapotocky, also attended the naturalization ceremony. At the ceremony, Behan was asked to tell his story as the keynote speaker.

That's not to say it was easy. And because it was not easy, becoming an American citizen, with all of the rights and responsibilities it entails, is all the more precious.

"It was a long drawn out and costly process that I am proud to have accomplished. If you are U.S. born. it is your Natural Born right to vote for all public officials," Behan says. "Please exercise your right to do so, and encourage your friends and family members who may not vote to please do so, and the importance thereof."

It takes determination

Becoming naturalized isn't a simple task.

The Migration Policy Institute's Mittelstadt says "there are an estimated eight million legal permanent residents (that's two-thirds of the overall legal permanent resident population and two-fifths of the total immigrant population in the U.S.) who are eligible to apply for citizenship and who haven't."

The decision to take that final step to actually become an American citizen takes determination.

"The decision whether to naturalize is a complex one and is affected by a number of factors, among them the cost of naturalization (the U.S. cost is high compared with other industrialized countries), English proficiency, and lack of knowledge about the application process," she says.

"Naturalization rates depend on a complex range of factors that shape immigrants' ability to meet eligibility criteria on the one hand, and their motivation to naturalize on the other. To naturalize, immigrants must already hold lawful permanent residence, demonstrate their English language proficiency and knowledge of US history and government through the naturalization test, pass a criminal-background check, and pay an application fee of $680," wrote Madeleine Sumption and Sarah Flamm in their study, The Economic Value of Citizenship for Immigrants in the United States, published in September.

The application fee was increased in July 2007, from $330 to $595, prompting a huge surge in applications before the fee took effect, Mittelstadt says. Also, the citizenship test was redesigned, with the new test and revised administration process taking effect in 2008. Sumption and Flamm's figure includes a fee for collection of biometric data.

Giving Back

Naturalized American citizens tend to have higher levels of education and a better command of the English language as opposed to those immigrants who have not become citizens, according to the Immigration Policy Institute.

"Naturalized citizens earn between 50 and 70 percent more than noncitizens. They have higher employment rates and are half as likely to live below the poverty line as noncitizens. Naturalized citizens also appear to have weathered the effects of the economic crisis more successfully. Noncitizens' median income fell by 19 percent from 2006-10, compared to declines of 8 percent for the US born and just 5 percent for naturalized citizens. As a result, the earnings gap between naturalized and noncitizen immigrants increased from 46 percent to 67 percent over the same period," Sumption and Flamm wrote.

Behan is a symbol of that success, an example of how naturalized American citizens contribute to the economy, participate in the electoral process, and work to make good lives.

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