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Encouraging Citizenship: New Climate, Same Commitment

March 17, 2017
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At every citizenship workshop we hold, we see aspiring citizens of all types. Some come to us excited about the opportunity to vote. For others, it’s the prospect of easier travel outside the U.S. But in these uncertain times, many lawful permanent residents know citizenship is the best protection for themselves and their families. In the past nine months, we’ve seen the landscape of our country and the tone of our citizenship workshops shift.

Last summer, Gisela, a volunteer at Asian Americans Advancing Justice-AAJC in Washington, D.C. reminded us how far we’ve come since she and her family came to the U.S. At that time, nothing like our citizenship workshops existed. She perfectly captured the trust, hope and enthusiasm of the families and individuals who attended one of our citizenship events in June.

“There was no feeling of intimidation in that room. … The first client I met had a bright smile on his face and seemed unfazed by the process that lay ahead…

Another client I met came with his wife, and the technical requirements of the N-400 form [citizenship application] seemed to slowly defeat them. Throughout the process, when there appeared to be a stumbling block, they seemed ready to raise the white flag. But in that room there was an entire system and network of people behind them to make sure they left having taken their first step towards naturalization.”

Today, aspiring citizens still come to our workshops eager to become U.S. citizens and grateful for the community of support and experts they find there. Unfortunately, the mood simply isn’t what it was last June in D.C. On both coasts, the political climate has changed. At Asian Americans Advancing Justice-LA, we’ve received almost 3,500 phone calls in the past six months – that’s nearly double the 1,800 calls we received during the entire previous year. The community is hungry for assistance with naturalization. They know it is the strongest form of protection from the menacing threat of deportation that can tear families apart. One client put us on speed-dial before his fingerprint appointment, just in case.

In D.C., the heightened discussion around immigrant communities and citizenship has made it increasingly clear how important it is for us to make sure aspiring citizens are getting the right information, and all the information they need about the naturalization process. Nearly two-thirds of lawful permanent residents have not received any information about the process; what little they do know often comes from media clips or word of mouth, not naturalization experts who can help them navigate the path to become new Americans.

We’ve always known how important decoding and simplifying the naturalization process for aspiring citizens is – whether a senior from China or a senior in high school from Vietnam. But, this new age of misinformation and uncertainty reminds us that our job is to make sure it’s done right. Now, more than ever, our role as a trusted community resource with deep naturalization expertise is crucial.

While we can list many things that have changed since Gisela tackled citizenship application forms with community members at Seoul Presbyterian Church, one thing has not: We remain committed as ever to the immigrant communities we serve, and to doing our best to make sure people leave our citizenship workshops – in L.A. and D.C. – feeling confident about their journey to becoming U.S. citizens.

By Marita Etcubañez, Director of Strategic Initiatives at Asian Americans Advancing Justice-AAJC and Nasim Khansari, Citizenship Project Director at Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles