Marc Fest is a consultant for Knight Foundation and the New Americans Campaign, a Knight-funded project to modernize naturalization assistance in the United States. Below, he writes about a recent “mega workshop” held in Miami to help 1,000 green card holders begin the complex citizenship process.
The air was sweltering on a recent Saturday at Miami Dade College. But about 1,000 people didn’t mind standing in line. They had come to change their lives by embarking on the challenging path towards American citizenship at Miami’s first “mega workshop.” The event, organized by the New Americans Campaign, a nationwide effort of more than 100 partner organizations, is partially funded by Knight Foundation. The goal: to use novel and more efficient approaches to help green card holders become American citizens. Its local organizers were excited, but also a bit nervous, about trying their new ideas.
Two hundred lawyers, law students, and paralegals signed up as volunteers. “Naturalization can be a complex process,” explained Randy McGrorty, director of Catholic Legal Services at the Archdiocese of Miami, the lead organizer of the event. “We were very careful with the people we selected,” he said, “and there were many training opportunities.”
Supporting the Citizenship Mega Workshop were the “Ya Es Hora Ciudadanía” campaign of Univision 23, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, and the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc., as well as Miami New Americans Campaign partners, such as Hispanic Unity, Read2Succeed, Florida International University-School of Law Clinic, International Rescue Committee, Florida Immigrant Coalition and the Center for Immigrant Advancement.
The scene in the Alvah Chapman Conference Center resembled a chaotic train station. Prospective American citizens entered the gigantic room to sit down with the volunteers to fill out the citizenship applications, also known as N-400 forms. Volunteers held up signs that read “I speak English and Creole” or “I speak Spanish.” Some clients came in wheelchairs. Some had their children with them. Others their spouses. “We try to maintain some kind of attorney-client relationship, even in this chaos,” said McGrorty. “We are trying to make sure that we give good quality services to people.”
McGrorty said the idea was to make it a “one-stop experience” for clients. “If somebody forgot their photo, we have a photographer here. If you receive public benefits you are eligible to receive a fee waiver. We have somebody here to print this out.”
For the first time clients also had the option of bringing a laptop. “We provided them with a downloadable program to help assist them in filling out the form,” said McGrorty. “That’s an innovation that’s never been tried in a workshop setting before.”
In most cases, clients will submit their applications after the workshop. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will then contact them to schedule a biometrics appointment, a final interview and, eventually, their attendance at a naturalization ceremony. In some cases, clients will schedule follow-up appointments with New Americans Campaign lawyers.
Studies have shown that larger numbers of naturalized citizens contribute to increased economic output, a larger tax base and greater engagement in communities. But of 8.5 million legal permanent residents in the United States in 2011, only about 8 percent applied to become citizens, according to statistics from USCIS. Barriers include poor English language skills, fear of the complex application process and the application fee of $680 (a Green Card renewal, due every 10 years, costs just $450).
Says Maria Rodriguez, CEO of the Florida Immigrant Coalition: “Many people in these lines have risked their lives coming to this country. We are helping them make their dream come true.”