Lawyers learn to help immigrants achieve citizenship

Attorneys learn how to help immigrants fill out the citizenship application. Photo by Jared Foretek.

It is a cold night and lawyers — many coming straight from their day jobs — are trickling into the auditorium at the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia and sharing horror stories of Fairfax County traffic.

They have different legal backgrounds and expertise, but tonight, they’ll get trained to help eligible legal permanent residents fill out the citizenship application.

Juan Navarrete from CASA, the immigration advocacy and assistance nonprofit, is leading the lawyers through the 20-page document that will largely determine whether the permanent legal residents the lawyers see can become American citizens. It’s a comprehensive and detailed form; every speeding ticket the applicant has ever gotten, every religious organization they’ve ever joined, their father’s alien registration number — it all has to be documented.

Naturally, the lawyers have some questions as they try to game out every roadblock that could arise when filling out the complex form. If an applicant lists a child they have no relationship with, could it open them up to child support claims? (Yes.) By helping someone with the form, are they creating an attorney-client relationship? (No.)

According to Navarette, there are 8.5 million legal permanent residents living inside the United States who could qualify for citizenship (meaning they have had legal status in the country for five years or three if they’re married to a U.S. citizen). But that doesn’t mean they don’t face any obstacles in doing so. For one, they may not speak English well; fluency is not required to gain citizenship, but some proficiency is, and according to Navarette, immigration officers will assess the applicant’s language skills throughout the process.

Another big challenge is money. The naturalization fee is $725, though CASA and other organizations will sometimes help with microloans. Still, the benefits to citizenship are enormous. A legal permanent resident can be deported from the United States for certain crimes, a naturalized citizen cannot.

“These are people who are on the last step of a long journey,” Navarette tells the lawyers. “It’s a journey they may have started undocumented, but now they are going to be American citizens.”

From December to March, CASA will hold monthly clinics where the lawyers being trained will assist with intake, going over the form in detail and determining what else the applicants will need to complete the process. Navarette says it can take months simply to collect the necessary documentation for the form. Then, they will need to pass attend a citizenship interview, take a 100-question history and civics exam and finally, pledge an oath of allegiance to the United States.

For Phyllis Dietz, a retired financial services lawyer, the session isn’t her first introduction to immigration advocacy. In the 1980s, she participated in a series of protests outside of the Soviet embassy calling for the government to allow the emigration of Soviet Jews. A member of Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, she thinks it’s especially important to get involved in immigration issues now given the political rhetoric surrounding the issue.

“The climate is such that there’s a more pressing need than ever to turn our attention to Jewish values and treating the stranger with respect. For most of us in the Jewish community, and frankly every American who isn’t a Native American, our ancestors all came from somewhere else,” Dietz says. “I’m retired, I got time. And it’s a very marginalized group.”

Like Dietz, Harvey Reiter responded to a call from the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater
Washington for volunteer lawyers. Reiter, an energy regulation attorney and JCRC board member, also organized in the 1980s for Soviet Jews. His mother was a Holocaust survivor and he says it’s crucial that immigrants get treated with the kind of dignity and respect he’d want for his own family.

“My parents were immigrants. To me it’s important that we treat immigrants fairly. It’s not any more complicated than that,” Reiter says.

He has also been volunteering to stop a proposed Department of Homeland Security rule that would make it harder for immigrants to get green cards. “You can see from the turnout today, there’s a lot of people who want to help out. They’ve seen the government, its rhetoric has been so harsh to the community. They want to help.”

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