The coronavirus pandemic brought an end to the large in-person, indoor workshops that many of our New Americans Campaign partners worked tirelessly to orchestrate over the years. It did not, however, put an end to the need. With a substantial fee hike looming on October 2, many of our partners have become more flexible, creative, and determined than ever to pool their talents and resources to offer virtual citizenship workshops.
Sonia Santana, the Citizenship Program Coordinator for the New York/New Jersey NAC partner Dominicanos USA (DUSA), says lawful permanent residents are hearing about the planned fee increase and calling to ask for help submitting their citizenship applications before the October deadline. Santana tells them to begin their application on Citizenshipworks and signs them up for a free virtual workshop to complete the process. DUSA held its first virtual workshops over the summer—collaborating with NALEO Educational Fund and GMHC to assist approximately 15 applicants in July, and more than doubling attendance in August to serve 31 people with additional help from CUNY Citizenship Now!
The New York City based partners are ramping up the number of workshops and will hold two events in September to help as many people as possible before the fees go up. Because location is no longer an issue, Santana says that some people are attending from out of state, “We take them from anywhere if they need help. We had people from New Jersey, we had people from Connecticut, and at our last event we had one from North Carolina.”
Sarah Letson, the Senior Manager of Innovation & Learning at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, says she’s observed a number of trends in the NAC: the number of aspiring citizens seeking information is on the rise, there’s growing capacity in holding naturalization workshops online or by phone, and some groups like International Rescue Committee and NALEO Educational Fund are experimenting with sharing staff and interns from offices across the country in order to hold larger workshops.
The structure of workshops has also become more flexible. In-person workshops used to be primarily a “one-stop shop,” says Letson. “Most of the process of completing an application was finished in one day—screening, application completion, legal review, and packaging.” But now that workshops are virtual, she says, “there can be much more flexibility.” For example, ten New Americans Campaign partners in Miami are hosting a “mega workshop” over four days between September 16 and 19. They are calling it the “Naturalize Now, Miami! 2020 Virtual Citizenship Clinic” and they hope to serve around 400 applicants. Sonia Santana, of DUSA, is impressed with the Miami NAC’s ambition. For DUSA’s virtual workshops, she tries to recruit twice as many volunteers as she thinks she will need. “Sometimes you do the training, they confirm, and at the last minute they can’t make it,” she says. Her advice for the Miami collaborators? Use name tags so that the volunteers, staff, and clients in the breakout virtual rooms can know, right away, who is who, and, she adds emphatically, “sign up a lot of volunteers!”