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Brooklyn Bar Association’s Volunteer Lawyers Project hosts naturalization clinic

April 25, 2019 Paul Frangipane
New U.S. citizens take the oath of loyalty at their naturalization ceremony. Eagle file photo by Paul Frangipane

The Brooklyn Bar Association’s Volunteer Lawyers Project teamed up with the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) to hold a naturalization clinic Tuesday night at Brooklyn Borough Hall for attorneys to learn the ins and outs of the citizenship application process.

NALEO holds periodic citizenship workshops throughout New York City and Brooklyn to provide free assistance with naturalization applications. In addition to experienced immigration attorneys, volunteer attorneys like those learning the process last night staff the workshops.

“I can tell you, everybody that comes to our workshops, they love it, they feel that they are doing a wonderful service,” said Monica Vargas-Huertas, NALEO’s northeast deputy director.

Volunteer attorneys screen applicants’ eligibility for citizenship at the workshops and help them determine if they qualify for a fee waiver to help get residents ready to send their applications, starting a process that could take up to two years.

Monica Vargas-Huertas teaches a naturalization training class at Brooklyn Borough Hall. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
Monica Vargas-Huertas teaches a naturalization training class at Brooklyn Borough Hall. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

The application process

“Right now, the timing for the process of naturalization is taking far longer than in the past,” Vargas-Huertas said.

The application process has been taking at least 18 months.

The first step is to fill out an N-400 or application for naturalization and provide all documents that support legal residency. People who is at least 18 years old have to wait five years after becoming a permanent resident, or receiving their Green Card, before they can apply. That wait drops to three years if they got their residency by marrying a U.S. citizen, but they must still be living with their spouse.

Applicants also have to spend at least half of their residency in the United States.

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Once the application is sent, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will send out an appointment time for a background check through fingerprints.

The final step is an interview with an immigration officer, during which applicants will be tested on their English skills and U.S. civics knowledge.

Vargas-Huertas said it is important for applicants to understand not only that they have to memorize the civics test in English but they have to show throughout the 30-to-35-minute interview that they speak and understand English well.

And because interviews take so long set up, she recommended people bring evidence of everything in their applications and everything significant that has changed in their lives since.

But much of the job of the volunteer attorneys will be to screen applicants to see if they should apply at all.

“We have to protect their best interests and sometimes the best interest of the applicant is not to apply,” Vargas-Huertas said.

Good moral character test

One of the things that could disqualify hopeful citizens is a good moral character test. Volunteer lawyers should balance each person’s good and bad acts to decide if he or she should apply.

Residents must not have been arrested or convicted of a crime in the past five years, or three if they’re seeking citizenship through marriage. They would have to wait for the time to pass to apply and even then USCIS could still disqualify them.

It’s also important to realize, Vargas-Huertas said, that any record of drug use could disqualify applicants. That includes participation in drug rehab programs or marijuana possession, including medical marijuana in legal states, as it is still considered a federal crime.

“Of course moral excellence is not required, but almost,” Vargas-Huertas said.

NALEO holds citizenship workshops the third Friday of each month at the Brooklyn Public Library.

The Brooklyn Bar Association’s volunteer lawyers project hosts regular CLEs for attorneys free of charge if they agree to take on a class for free.

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