Naturalization clinics help immigrants apply for citizenship in Brooklyn and Queens
U.S. Rep. Yvette Clarke and Catholic Immigration Services provide pro bono legal aid to future Americans
Naturalization, the process of shedding one national identity and adopting another, is an intensely bureaucratic process. Who better than attorneys working pro-bono to guide legal residents through the final stages of their transformation into one-hundred percent, card-carrying (or, really, passport-holding) American citizens?
In Brooklyn, the clinic was sponsored by U.S. Rep. Yvette Clarke of the 11th District, staffed by personnel from New York Legal Assistance Group and set up inside Weeksville’s Calvary Church. In Queens, Catholic Migration Services filled LaGuardia Community College’s East Atrium with manpower from New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.
“I want to vote!” said Julia, a Brooklyn teacher’s assistant originally from Santo Domingo speaking in Spanish. “Everyone here was very kind, very thorough.” Her application completed, Julia promised to invite the Brooklyn Eagle to her eventual swearing-in ceremony as a U.S. citizen.
Of the 50 green card holders filling LaGuardia Community College’s East Atrium on July 28, few were willing to speak on the record for understandable reasons: their applications submitted, or ready to submit, how could adding publicity do anything but jinx the process?
“More people are applying for citizenship now,” said Min Kim, an attorney for New York Legal Assistance Group, which provides free legal aid to people unable to afford legal services on their own. “People with green cards are concerned that they might still face deportation, given the government’s stance on immigration of all kinds.”
According to a New York Times article published in October 2017, applications for citizenship rose dramatically in 2016 as Donald Trump rode promises to crack down on immigration, legal and otherwise, into the White House. They rose higher still in 2017 because, as writer Miriam Jordan wrote, “…even a green card is not enough in the eyes of hundreds of thousands of immigrants applying for naturalization to protect themselves from removal and gain the right to vote.”
Green card holders with at least five years residence are eligible to apply for naturalization.
“We also have to ensure that our applicants don’t have issues in their background that might make them ‘deportable,’” Kim said. Arrest records and convictions for felonies and some serious misdemeanors typically prevent an applicant’s request for naturalization from being considered, and can, in many instances, prompt the government into initiating deportation hearings on the basis of “moral turpitude”.
“In some instances,” Kim said, “an application can backfire on the green-card holder.”
Listed on the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services website crimes of moral turpitude are “polygamy, adultery, habitual drunkard, gambling offenses and smuggling of a person.”
“The whole process, from application to swearing in takes about one year,” said Chloe Moore, naturalization coordinator for Catholic Migration Services, taking a break in one of LaGuardia College’s student dining rooms, where snacks and coffee had been laid out for the volunteers.
Inside the college’s East Atrium people sat across from another, passing various forms back and forth. Attorneys and paralegals were casually dressed, so it was hard to say at first blush who was the immigrant and who was the counselor. Moore, along with Annamaria Santamaria, program associate for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, worked her way around the tables, offering advice and encouragement.
Overlooking the assembly, a kiosk representing the most American of brands, Starbucks, did a brisk trade.
Ernesto from Chile completed all of his paperwork. This, he explained in halting, but clear English, is his third time applying. Previous applications foundered when he failed to pass the citizenship quiz, but he feels the third time will be the charm, and his excitement was contagious. Before leaving he offered this Eagle reporter a hug, which was reciprocated.
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