Nathaniel Stiefel of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services addresses The American Legion’s Americanism/Children and Youth commissions. Photo by Mark Seavey

'Building and preparing future citizens'

Although The American Legion's positions on illegal immigration often get more press, the work the Legion does in naturalization efforts is often unheralded. That's what Nathaniel Stiefel, division chief for Programs and Policy, Office of Citizenship with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, told the Americanism/Children and Youth Commission Friday during the national convention in Milwaukee.

"I know that often times, immigration issues can be dynamic and divisive, but there are some real partnerships we can do together between the federal government and The American Legion," Stiefel said.

The Office of Citizenship (OOC) is tasked with a variety of initiatives that help publicize the rights and responsibilities of being a U.S. citizen and letting legal non-citizens present here know more about the opportunities and tools they can utilize to become vested citizens. The OOC works diligently on immigration assimilation and integration through shared civic values.

Stiefel stressed that, "Integration is a two-way street. It is important that non-citizens be encouraged to learn about the country, but also for the recipient community to be welcoming. They (those seeking citizenship) must feel and perceive themselves as Americans."

He stressed the local partnerships that The American Legion and the OOC have worked on together, like a recent demonstration project which took place between the OOC and Post 29 in Marietta, Ga., where prospective citizens received training on the citizenship process, naturalization test and available resources. He also stressed the importance of immigrants learning the English language and being fully assimilated and welcoming of U.S. civic and historical underpinnings as a nation.

The numbers of legal immigrants coming into the country is likely to reach all-time highs. It is estimated that foreign-born citizens will increase from 12.5 percent to 19 percent of the U.S. population in the next 10 years alone. And while many are settling in the traditional states of California, Texas, New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Florida, many also are now going into newer hubs that might not have the capacity, such as North Carolina, Georgia and New Hampshire. In 2009 alone, there were 1.1 million lawful immigrants to this country, with 743,715 becoming naturalized citizens.

"Citizenship is an identity, not simply a benefit, and that comes with attached responsibilities," Stiefel said. "Civic organizations must be involved. Groups like The American Legion have a strong network of volunteers who share an ethic of service and an interest in patriotic and national causes. And The American Legion can strengthen its citizenship education programs by helping immigrants prepare for citizenship and learn more about the United States - building and preparing future citizens."

The Office of Citizenship can provide the resources needed for posts to become involved, through study materials, access to the USCIS network of community organizations, technical assistance on naturalization requirements and any citizenship questions. More information for posts wishing to participate can be found here.