By Wendy Thompson
ORLANDO, FLORIDA – Becoming a United States citizen is a dream that legal residents, especially Hispanics, tend to postpone because of the high cost of applying for it, but a new government initiative aims to ease the financial burden of the process.
The office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will distribute $1.2 million among community organizations that help steer applicants through the procedure of obtaining citizenship.
The services of these organizations must concentrate on classes in English, history and civics that require both a written exam and an interview with USCIS officials.
Unlike other types of federal help for obtaining citizenship, USCIS aid to organizations that receive it will enable them to offer permanent legal residents direct assistance with citizenship forms.
“I love the idea of the funds and even more that they allow local community organizations to help fill out the forms, something that other programs do not include, and that is very important because sometimes people make mistakes that can not only cost them any chance at citizenship but also the loss of their status as permanent legal residents,” Mirna Torres of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc., or CLINIC, told Efe.
Besides helping with the forms, the funds can be used to buy books, computers and language programs, and to train personnel and volunteers who work in services dedicated solely to obtaining citizenship.
“This donation won’t cover a lot, since it has been divided into 12 parts of $100,000 each, and the competition among community agencies to get their share will be tough. Nonetheless, we’re urging all the organizations to take part. If they don’t get the funds, at least they’re practicing and preparing for the future,” Torres said.
She said the USCIS initiative could be considered a kind of pilot plan for community organizations to teach them what they would have to do if immigration reform is passed.
“These funds should also be taken by local agencies as training, since when immigration reform is approved, at local levels these organizations will have a lot of work to do helping legalize the immigration status of thousands of undocumented aliens,” she said.
The USCIS Citizenship Program will give priority to organizations that offer citizenship services to people over 65 years of age, eligible refugees and exiles, as well as women covered by the Violence Against Women Act, young people with special visas and other groups of permanent legal residents in difficult economic circumstances.
“This is the first time USCIS offers this kind of aid, and whether it is repeated could well depend on how the agencies use these funds now,” said Torres, whose organization is funded by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. EFE