Eliminating the Fear in the Citizenship Process

In a brick-walled office at the Faneuil Hall South Market building, four individuals work for an organization called Project Citizenship. The name perfectly describes who they are—a collaborative group working to help immigrants obtain their U.S. citizenship. The office window looks out onto the front entrance of the historic Faneuil Hall, where more than 300 immigrants are sworn in as new Americans each week. Some of these new Americans made it there with the help of the Project Citizenship staff.

The organization began as the Greater Boston Citizen Initiative (GBCI), a collection of community-based organizations based in downtown Boston.

“Each of these [six to seven] different agencies had different priorities, different ethnicities that they assisted. So the role of GBCI was to combine one project based on citizenship. And that’s evolved into its own organization,” says Program Manager Matthew Jose.

In 2014, GCBI changed its name to Project Citizenship after the organization increased its staff size and expanded its work to include immigrants outside of the Greater Boston Area. Veronica Serrato was the first attorney and executive director of Project Citizenship. Having an attorney on staff allowed the organization to properly review and sign off on naturalization applications.

The staff members help eligible green card holders begin the naturalization process by filling out the citizenship application form (N-400) and handing in other necessary paperwork. They then help prepare them for the history test and interview to make their journey through the citizenship process as easy as possible.

Project Citizenship has helped more than 6,600 immigrants apply for citizenship in the last four years.

“Through our partners that we fund we get close to 800 people that process [their citizenship] application through them, and on our end our goal this year is to process 300 to 400 people,” says Program Assistant Melanie Torres.

Partnerships with more than 10 other organizations, like Massachusetts Immigration and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA) and Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD), have expanded its outreach and allowed the organization to provide additional services to all immigrants, whether they are green card holders or not.

“We never say no to anyone. If they have a more complicated issue or maybe they are not a green card holder, we refer them to one of our partners, one that we know they can take care of them,” says Torres.

An Intimidating Process for Immigrants

More than 900,000 immigrants live Massachusetts, the eighth largest population in the U.S., but almost half are still not American citizens, according to the American Community Survey 5-year estimates. Part of the reason is the lack of knowledge, guidance, and help immigrants receive about the citizenship process.

“There is a sense of fear around going through this process,” says Torres. “People with criminal records are sometimes scared to apply. People who have had problems with immigration in the past [are also scared]. It’s hard to read the application. Even someone who speaks English finds it intimidating.”

Staff members work one-on-one with applicants through the 6-month-long process, making sure they make their appointments, call them for updates on their case, and answer any questions they have along the way.

The interview process intimidates many immigrants, where they are required to read, write, speak, and understand English. Immigrants have to take a 10-question multiple choice American history and government test. Though the test may be easy to Americans who have learned these basic facts in grade school, it’s hard for immigrants learning English as their second language. Project Citizenship provides flashcards and refers its clients to English as a Second Language (ESOL) classes, which help them improve their English before the interview, increasing their confidence to pass the interview stage.

Forming Relationships with Clients

Part of Project Citizenship’s success is being able to connect and maintain a level of trust with the immigrants it works with. At the first meeting, applicants fill out a 21-page form, are screened and asked personal questions to address potential issues that might slow down their application process.

“I think that I’m always struck by how trusting folks are that we ask them all these personal questions,” says Serrato.

Jose says having applicants feel comfortable while working with them is essential. The more comfortable they are, the more willing they are to open up about their history.

Because of how closely they work with their clients, staff members establish a friendship-type of relationship with some of them.

“Just by sheer volume, you can’t make a personal relationship with everybody. We help over 2,000 people every year, and I can’t meet everybody. So the ones I do specifically help I make sure I do make a connection to because that’s sort of why I’m doing this job, that’s sort of why it keeps me here, why I’m energized by this job, why I’m encouraged by what we do,” says Jose.

Jose, Torres, and Serrato become part of the immigrant’s journey to building his or her life in the U.S. Whether it’s at a citizenship workshop or at their Faneuil Hall office, immigrants tell them their stories about why they want to become an American citizen.

“There’s a lot of people who [apply for citizenship] for a lot of different reasons, but every individual story is very compelling because it’s a very personal decision and it’s sort of taking us on their own private journey,” Serrato says.

Inspired by their Parents’ Journeys to America

The connection they feel to the immigrants they work with also comes from family experiences. Serrato and Torres both have immigrant parents, a factor that has impacted their decision to work with the immigrant population.

Torres isn’t exactly sure what her father’s American dream is, but says, like many other immigrants who come to America, his dream most likely was to create a better life for himself in the U.S. She talks about the difficult life her father had back in Spain, why he immigrated to America and how he continues to work and build a better life with his family in the U.S.

Serrato’s parents immigrated from Mexico, met and married in Chicago, and had five children, Serrato being the oldest. Neither of them had the opportunity to obtain a college education. Being able to raise their children in the U.S. meant having access to educational opportunities Serrato’s parents didn’t have back in Mexico. Serrato was able to pursue her law career that has allowed her to work with the immigrant population directly.

“I went to law school because I wanted to pay forward the educational and economic opportunities that I had growing up that a lot of other immigrants don’t get,” says Serrato.

“Working with people who are poor ended up being working with people who are immigrants–it’s the same population. So it was important for me to use my Spanish and I’ve had different legal aid positions that probably a third of my clients only spoke Spanish.”

Serrato says working for Project Citizenship was a very different opportunity for her “because it was proactive, it’s positive, it’s people taking an affirmative step in their lives as opposed to them reacting to something bad that has happened to them.”

Valuing the American Dream

The American dream isn’t always what it is made out to be. Many immigrants believe coming to the America will make them wealthy and allow them to live the ideal life they have always dreamed of, but many times that’s not the case. In the U.S., more than 43 percent of immigrants live in poverty, according to Center for Immigration Studies. Serrato says about  65 percent of their clients get fee waivers for the citizenship application because they are living at or below the poverty guidelines.

However, sometimes it’s not about achieving every part of their American dream, but having more resources and opportunities than what they would have had in their home country.

“They’re not living this, what a lot of people would imagine to be the American dream, but to them, it’s still such an improvement of from where they came from,” says Torres.

Please visit Project Citizenship website to learn more about the work they do.

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Hear where Jose may have met one of his clients in the past.

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I think he [my dad] has had a lot of opportunity when he came to the U.S., but there’s also some challenges and struggles and I recognize that in him and I can only imagine that for people who come from even more different cultures and societies. So that’s always been kind of my drive, to kind of work with that population because I think there’s so much that can be done to help these people through this process and eventually become more advocates for themselves in the system. Being an American is by no means a requirement but I think to live here but it does help you vote and help influence things that happen in this country and I think that’s very valuable

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