Take an inside look at aspiring citizens taking the next step towards their American dream.

By Marc Fest

The air was sweltering on a recent Saturday at Miami Dade College. But about 1,000 people didn’t mind standing in line. They had come to change their lives by embarking on the challenging path towards American citizenship at Miami’s first “mega workshop.” The event was organized by members of the New Americans Campaign.

The scene in the Alvah Chapman Conference Center resembled a chaotic train station. Prospective American citizens entered the gigantic room to sit down with the more than two hundred volunteer lawyers, law students, and paralegals to fill out the citizenship applications, also known as N-400 forms. Volunteers held up signs that read “I speak English and Creole” or “I speak Spanish.” Some clients came in wheelchairs. Some had their children with them. Others, their spouses.

“Naturalization can be a complex process,” explained Randy McGrorty, director of Catholic Legal Services at the Archdiocese of Miami which served as the lead organizer of the event. The idea of the mega workshop is to make it a “one-stop experience” for clients, using an improved model that the New Americans Campaign has been championing throughout the country.

NAC partners are also leading the way in testing out new approaches. For example, for the first time clients also had the option of bringing a laptop. “We provided them with a downloadable program to help assist them in filling out the form,” said McGrorty. “That’s an innovation that’s never been tried in a workshop setting before.”

In most cases, clients will submit their applications after the workshop. US Citizenship and Immigration Services will then contact them to schedule a biometrics appointment, a final interview with an English and civics test, and eventually invite them to a naturalization ceremony. In some cases, clients will schedule follow-up appointments with New Americans Campaign lawyers.

Studies have shown that larger numbers of naturalized citizens contribute to increased economic output, a larger tax base and greater engagement in communities. But of the 8.5 million legal permanent residents in the United States who were eligible for naturalization in 2011, only about 8 percent applied to become citizens, according to statistics of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Barriers include lack of access to English language classes, fear of the complex application process and the expensive application fee of $680.

Says Maria Rodriguez, CEO of the Florida Immigrant Coalition: “Many people have risked their lives coming to this country. We are helping them make their dream come true.”

The Miami-based New Americans Campaign partners that helped organize the event include Hispanic Unity, Read2Succeed, Florida International University-School of Law Clinic, International Rescue Committee, Florida Immigrant Coalition and the Center for Immigrant Advancement. Other major supporters for the workshop included New American Campaign national partners – the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Official (NALEO) Educational Fund and the Catholic Legal Immigration Network – along with the “Ya Es Hora Ciudadanía” campaign led by Univision 23.

Marc Fest is a consultant for Knight Foundation and the New Americans Campaign, a national nonpartisan project to modernize naturalization assistance in the United States. Above he reports back from a recent “mega workshop” in Miami that helped 1,000 green card holders begin the complex citizenship process.