Leaders in Corona launch drive to make new citizens

By Rich Bockmann

There are some 500,000 legal immigrants in the state who are eligible for naturalization, and on Sunday morning organizers gathered outside a church in Corona to kick off a campaign to help them become citizens.

“This campaign, Cambia Tu Vida, is really important to our city,” Bishop Charles DiMarzio, of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, said outside the Our Lady of Sorrows Roman Catholic Church.

The campaign’s Spanish title translates as “Change Your Life,” and it will host two workshops next month that will help green card holders who have been in the country for at least five years navigate the naturalization process, which includes filling out the new N-400 forms the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office will roll out in May.

“Now we’re here to help and that’s what the campaign is about,” DiMarzio said. “There is the difficulty of filling out the forms. You have to speak some English. You have to be able to answer some questions on the test. We will help everybody with that, but it’s most important that we give the opportunity to people to be helped, to become citizens.”

With the U.S. Senate and the state Assembly — both of which are controlled by Democrats — having passed immigration-reform bills, advocates feel the iron is hot.

U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), a member of the “Gang of Eight” leading the charge in Washington, said reaching out to immigrants from more than 100 countries who speak many different languages will not be easy, but it will be worth it to those who come out the other end as citizens.

“Millions and millions of people all over the world, if they could have one wish, it would be to become an American citizen, and here we have half a million people in New York — 8 million people in the country — who can become American citizens and many of them want to become American citizens, but because citizenship is so valuable we don’t just say you can sign a paper and become a citizen,” he said. “You have to go through certain steps, and today’s campaign will help those hardworking immigrants and their families become citizens here in New York.”

Schumer was surrounded by several borough lawmakers who said naturalization represented a turning point for their families, including U.S. Rep. Grace Meng (D-Flushing), who said her parents hung their certificates on the wall of their Corona apartment not far from the church, and Assemblyman Francisco Moya (D-Jackson Heights), who said his father cast his first vote after becoming a citizen for his son.

City Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras (D-East Elmhurst) said many people who are eligible to become citizens avoid doing so because they believe they will choose to return to their home countries in the future.

“Twenty years later, 30 years later, guess what? This is our home. We do not lose our identity,” she said, pointing out that many countries allow dual citizenship. “What we do is gain our sense of being American.”

Surrounded by so many elected officials, the bishop said that above all naturalization grants a citizen one fundamental right.

“You can vote. Vote for some of these people. Maybe you don’t want to vote for them, but you can vote,” he pointed out dryly. “That’s important.”

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at rbockmann@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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