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Green cards are fine; that blue passport is better

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Carlos da Cruz decided to apply for U.S. citizenship
Carlos da Cruz, a green card holder for 25 years, decided to apply for U.S. citizenship this year. He joins other long-time green card holders contributing to the rising number of pending naturalization applications.
Riham Feshir | MPR News

Ian McWilliam was coming home from vacation in Greece a couple of years ago when an immigration officer in Philadelphia asked him some questions he wasn't expecting.

"Why have you never become a citizen?" asked the officer. "You've been here for 20 years. Why do you still have a green card?"

Even though that card identified McWilliam as a permanent legal resident of the United States, the immigration officer told him that he didn't have to let him back into the country.

"And I said, 'Well, I just never bothered,'" McWilliam said. "I mean it does say on the card that you're a permanent resident."

The 63-year-old moved from the United Kingdom to California in 1989. He lives in Minneapolis now.

Aside from that delay in Philadelphia, he re-entered the country without any further trouble.

"Being a citizen or not, for me at least, as an elderly white guy, doesn't make a lot of difference," McWilliam said. "I could totally understand it if you were a 20-year-old from Latin America. You're much more of a target. But I don't think I am a target for anything."

Still, he didn't want to run the risk and got a U.S. passport this year after getting approved for his citizenship.

McWilliam is one of a growing throng of legal, permanent residents of the United States who never saw the need to bother with citizenship — and are now having second thoughts. The number of pending naturalization applications is rising. Pending applications in Minnesota are up by 88 percent from 2016.

Whether it's for voting rights or ease of mind while traveling, more people are applying — waiting the two years to take the test, then celebrating with the oath of allegiance.

Including Billy Idol. Recently, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services tweeted a photo of the 63-year-old English musician at his citizenship ceremony in Los Angeles.

Immigration attorneys say another reason longtime green card holders are applying for citizenship is to be able to reunite easily with families — in case the current law changes to eliminate that option.

While some green card holders have waited decades to seek citizenship, others are applying sooner.

Lately, Sandra Feist has had clients file as they are eligible — after just three or five years of having a green card.

"In the current atmosphere where the immigration procedures and norms are evolving very quickly, there is a desire to just be completely out of that context and to just be a U.S. citizen," Feist said. "To have full confidence that under no circumstances would you be forced to leave the country."

Feist added that people who've spent the majority of their lives in the United States want to make clear that they are here to stay. Carlos da Cruz can relate.

Da Cruz's heritage is Chinese Peruvian. His St. Paul home is filled with art — some his own, other pieces from Peru. The 64-year-old moved to the United States to study business back in the 1970s.

A Passport Processing employee uses a stack of blank passports
A Passport Processing employee uses a stack of blank passports to print a new one at the Miami Passport Agency in Miami, Florida.
Joe Raedle | Getty Images 2007

He moved around a lot. He's had a student visa and a visitor visa. He went to Canada and was granted residency there. He came back to the United States around 1993, when his ex-wife was studying nursing in Minnesota. That's when they received their green cards.

So for the past 25 years, da Cruz has kept that permanent resident status, even though he's been eligible to become a U.S. citizen.

"I really have no idea, I was comfortable," he said. "I was proud of being Canadian. I always liked Canada."

But recently da Cruz decided to apply for U.S. citizenship and he's looking forward to voting. Now he's waiting to hear when he could take the test, which could take two years.

"I'm very proud of being multicultural, multi-race," he said. But now he has arrived at "this critical point, and then you say, 'I need to do something. To secure myself.'"

Whether it's for that extra security, to travel easily, vote, or reunite with family, the motives may vary — but that blue U.S. passport looks the same.