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LIC clinic helps immigrants apply for citizenship

After going through a pre-screening process and registering for an appointment, clients meet with a pro-bono attorney to go through their application.
Photo by Michael Shain
By Carlotta Mohamed

About 50 registered immigrants attended a naturalization workshop clinic Saturday to receive free legal assistance with their naturalization applications at LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City despite some anxiety that this is a perilous time to seek citizenship because of the Trump administration’s attitude toward immigrants.

New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, in partnership with Catholic Migration Services, LaGuardia Community College and multiple participating law firms, held their first naturalization workshop in Queens to provide access and services to immigrants seeking to become American citizens. NYLPI and CMS host four naturalization workshops a year.

“We do a lot of work to make clients feel comfortable,” said Annamaria Santamaria, program associate of Pro Bono Programs at NYLPI. “We make sure there’s translation support, that confidentiality remains between attorneys and clients, and make sure clients understand their process and what to expect.”

The law firms included Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP, Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP, and volunteers from Goldman Sachs.

According to Chloe Moore, coordinator at Catholic Migration Services, there is now a general feeling of fear about becoming denaturalized, since it’s a risky time to apply for citizenship.

“We’re seeing immigration using a lot more discretion to deny cases or to ask for addition evidence, documents, and they’re looking more closely at documents and criminal history,” said Moore. “But that’s why we’re here to help, to make people unafraid and provide the best service and give legal advice.”

Santamaria said people who are unable to pay the application fee of $725 can apply for a fee waiver, and complete the form with an attorney to be sent to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Afterwards, they meet with a CMS attorney who has expertise in immigration law and lastly check out with volunteers to package their application and find out the next steps in the process.

Prior to the event, permanent green card residents called the immigration service hotline to be pre-screened for eligibility to fill out their naturalization application, said Santamaria.

In order to be eligible for naturalization, the most basic requirements include: permanent lawful residents who are at least 18 years old and have had a green card for at least five years and have lived in the state or district where they are applying for at least three months.

Moore said people who were not registered were able to do a quick pre-screening to determine their eligibility for naturalization and schedule another appointment in their office.

“After filling out their application today, in about a month or so they’ll get a notice from USAS to get a fingerprint appointment and then there will be a very long wait between 10-17 months for their interview and exam on the same day,” said Moore. “An immigration officer will review the application with them, and if they don’t pass the exam, they’ll get a second chance, and if they don’t pass again, they’ll get denied.”

Applicants receive booklets that are given by the USCIS containing all of the civics questions that could come up in the exam, and a CD with practice questions, said Jose Leon, an attorney, who has worked with CMS for 4 1/2 years.

“Everyone was very helpful, informative, and courteous,” said a client, who chose to remain anonymous. “Years ago, I didn’t feel the urgency to get dual citizenship. I’m doing it now finally.”

Santamaria touted the benefits of the clinic.

“Oftentimes these services can be out of reach for people, and making these services free means more immigrant New Yorkers can access what they need to strive and flourish in New York City,” she said.

Reach reporter Carlotta Mohamed by e-mail at cmohamed@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4526.

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