PORTLAND — It means belonging. It means engagement.

“Just that feeling to cast your vote and say I am part of the process and can make my voice count. People don’t know how much freedom comes when you become a citizen,” Damas Rugaba said Feb. 22.

Rugaba, a co-founder of the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center, is now leading a drive to have those in Maine who are eligible to become citizens apply to do so.

The Center has joined the One Million Citizens by 2020 Campaign, a national effort to have a million new citizens naturalized by the 2020 elections. The effort comes after last fall’s local registration drive for naturalized citizens added 110 voters.

The task may be daunting, as U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services data from July 1 to Sept. 30, 2018 showed 738,000 pending N-400 applications for citizenship.

USCIS data for its service center in Portland (the only center in Maine) listed 400 pending applications. Maine applicants are waiting from 10 to almost 20 months for approval.

A consultant hired by the Center estimated there are 11,000 people in Maine eligible to become citizens, although he was not certain how many have already applied, Rugaba said.

“This current (presidential) administration is doing everything it can to delay any immigrant processing,” Rugaba, adding the intent is to get naturalized citizens voting as soon as they can.

On Monday, USCIS spokeswoman Jessica Collins said the department is “completing more citizenship applications, more efficiently and effectively — outperforming itself as an agency,” reaching a five-year high in oaths of citizenship last year.

While working with the state’s elected delegation to Washington, D.C., to break the backlog, Rugaba said wider legal action from a variety of advocates is also a possible recourse.

Rugaba fled his native Rwanda in 2000 to escape the continued strife between Hutus and Tutsis that spilled over from the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“They used to burn minibuses full of people,” he said of violence in the years following the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, where 800,000 people, largely Tutsis, were killed in about three months.

Rugaba did not arrive as a refugee with permanent residency status. He was granted asylum status in the summer of 2001, the first step he needed towards naturalization.

A pilot by trade, Rugaba’s asylum came just before the 9/11 attacks. Piloting jobs vanished afterward.

“It wasn’t because I was an immigrant, it was because the industry went downhill; it wasn’t a good time to go into that,” he said.

Rugaba said asylum status was only the start for him.

“Once we get the asylum approval, this is better than a diploma,” Rugaba said. “But citizenship is the highest honor anyone can get.”

It takes five years as a permanent resident before someone can apply for citizenship. Spouses of citizens have to wait three years, according to the USCIS website.

The application fee is a total of $725, with $85 assessed for a “biometric services fee,” i.e. fingerprinting.

Rugaba said the Immigrant Welcome Center is working directly with cPort Credit Union for loans to applicants.

The naturalization process also requires applicants to be proficient in English and to correctly answer at least six civics questions from a 10-question test. Those questions are asked from a larger list of 100 questions.

The Immigrant Welcome Center is also hosting classes on the civics test.

While not daunting, the test was useful, Rugaba said.

“It really gives you the understanding of the democratic process, it gives you an idea about all the roles of the government, and you learn the history of this country,” Rugaba said.

David Harry can be reached at 780-9092 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Damas Rugaba of the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center is leading the agency’s drive to encourage anyone eligible for citizenship to apply while also helping those whose applications are pending.

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