Help for immigrants seeking citizenship comes to Greenpoint

Courtesy of CUNY Citizenship Now! & Councilmember Levin

December 14, 2015 By Mary Frost Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Sandra Castillo, a resident of the U.S. since 1986, was too busy working and raising children to become a citizen earlier, but on Saturday she was ready. Photos by Mary Frost
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Sara Sandoval, dressed in a neat black skirt and blue top and sporting a fashionable scarf emblazoned with the word “Roma,” has been in the U.S. 46 years. Originally from Argentina, Ms. Sandoval, 71, was applying for U.S. citizenship for the first time at a CUNY Citizenship Now! event in Greenpoint on Saturday.

She said she would like to advise other immigrants to apply. “It’s nice to have citizenship.”

She said that “everyone in her family” urged her to attend the event held at the Polish & Slavic Center on Java Street, even though it entailed traveling from Bellmore, Long Island. “I have three sons and six grandchildren, four girls and two boys. They’re all citizens,” she said.

Sandra Castillo, 62, said she was at the event because, “I’d like to be a citizen of the United States.” Originally from Honduras, she has lived in the U.S. since 1986.

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“But never I go to school because I’ve been working, working, working. I have four children, everybody is here. One is citizen,” she said.

Roughly 130 hopeful long-term immigrants attended Saturday’s event, where CUNY Citizenship Now! Corps Volunteers helped them fill out their citizenship applications, took ID photos and advised them on financial waivers. Long tables buzzed with conversation as lawyers and other immigration professionals sat one-on-one with young and old applicants, all clutching papers and ID’s.

“We provide the service at no cost for the community. Most of the people here are volunteers,” said Sofia Carreno, CUNY Citizenship Now’s communications coordinator.

The program is directed by legal expert Allan Wernick, who also writes an immigration column for the Daily News. Citizenship Now’s volunteers assist more than 10,000 people each year at their centers and more than 2,100 at community based events.

“The attorneys and paralegals go through all their forms, help the applicants determine if they are eligible for citizenship and also fill out every page of the form to make sure everything is correct.  By the end of the event, participants walk out with a packet that is complete and entirely ready to be mailed out,” Carreno said. Participants also receive free photos and a book that helps them prepare for citizenship questions.

“We help people to see if they are eligible for a fee waiver so they don’t have to pay the $680 required for citizenship,” she added.

Sara Sandoval, originally from Argentina, has lived in the U.S. for 46 years. On Saturday she posed for her I.D. photo as part of her citizenship application process.

Brenda Bishop, a volunteer attorney who was formerly a Legal Aid attorney, is transitioning into immigration law.

“I feel very passionate about these issues — it’s just a strong personal feeling about the whole immigrant community,” she told the Brooklyn Eagle. “This is an amazing kind of event for people who have their permanent residency. To come together and get the kind of support on every level that they need, from beginning to end, to complete the immigration and naturalization application.”

Throughout the year, more than two thousand permanent residents attended similar events across the city. The Greenpoint help session was sponsored by Council Member Stephen Levin (Brooklyn Heights – Greenpoint — Bedford–Stuyvesant), the New Americans Campaign and NALEO.

Levin praised the program, and said he hoped to sponsor more like it throughout his district. Bożena Kamiński, president of the Polish & Slavic Center, worked with Levin to help make the event happen. “This is huge, thanks to your good idea,” she told Levin.

“Partnership,” Levin said.

Councilmember Stephen Levin holds an example of some of the material available to immigrants who applied for citizenship at Saturday’s CUNY Citizenship Now outreach in Greenpoint. Roughly 130 applicants received free help. Photo by Mary Frost

City looks to expand similar programs

The services provided by CUNY Citizenship Now! and related programs will be expanding dramatically soon. On Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Nisha Agarwal, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, announced the creation of ActionNYC, a $7.9 million initiative which will work with 15 community organizations to provide immigration-related information and legal support to New Yorkers.

De Blasio said that throughout its entire history, the city “has fundamentally been a city of immigrants. There’s never been a time when we weren’t a city of immigrants, when our character wasn’t shaped by the next generation of immigrants.”

He added, “Because of immigrants, we became great – it’s as simple as that.”

He said the new initiative would build the capacity of community-based organizations and legal service providers to ensure that New Yorkers “can come out of the shadows and live their lives freely.”

The Mayor made the announcement at the National Immigration Integration Conference held at the Marriott in Brooklyn.

The initiative was praised by Public Advocate Letitia James, state Sen. Daniel Squadron and Borough President Eric Adams, along with a host of officials.

The Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, in collaboration with the Human Resources Administration and the Research Foundation of the CUNY will administer the program.

Councilmember Levin with CUNY Citizenship Now Director Allan Wernick.

Gamal Morton, who works with CUNY Services, holds Saturday’s smaller volunteer – Elleira, 11 months old. Photos by Mary Frost

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