Immigration has been a hot-button topic for quite some time, and it doesn’t look like that will end soon. What can be done? To begin with, we need to educate ourselves as to the possibilities for anyone who is trying to be a legal citizen.
It’s not as cut and dried as you might think: There are piles of paperwork and a lot of hoops to jump through. Where to begin? Well, Providence, R.I., has launched a new immigration-focused legal service, meant to help foreign-born residents seeking U.S. citizenship, or wanting to renew their lawful immigration status.
The new program was funded with $500,000 from the American Rescue Plan Act, which had allocated $350 billion in flexible funding for state, local, territorial and tribal governments. One use for these funds was for immigrant communities, and it was meant to ensure advocacy for the health and safety of people facing deportation and detention. In August 2022, Mayor Jorge O. Elorza, along with Executive Director of Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island Kathy Cloutier, Latino Policy Institute Executive Director Marcela Betancur and other community members announced the launch of an Immigration Legal Assistance/COVID-19 Recovery Program. This program would provide immigration-focused legal services while also connecting individuals with community organizations and public agencies that provide additional services, benefits and meet basic needs.
There is much more to becoming a citizen than most people know — 10 steps, to be precise. The first one is simple: check eligibility for becoming a citizen. Besides the more common-knowledge paths toward citizenship (green card, marriage to a citizen, military service or being the child of a citizen), there are other considerations — residency, good moral character, knowledge of the language and civics. There are official forms to be filled out, like the N-400, and people need two passport-sized color photographs that clearly show their face. Documents must be photocopied and fingerprints must be taken. There are interviews and exams. It is no wonder the process can be overwhelming to so many, and the cost can be prohibitive. The current naturalization fee for a citizenship application is $725 ($640 for application processing and $85 for biometrics services), and this is nonrefundable, whether approved or not.
Elorza said there are many who qualify but never end up applying. This might be due to the cost or to legal issues. “With this partnership, we are providing legal support for immigrants and providing funds to pay for the application.”
Dorcas International is the largest U.S. Department of Justice-accredited provider of low-cost immigration legal services in Rhode Island. During its two-year contract, it will assist eligible individuals — from helping them maintain a lawful presence in Rhode Island to obtaining their U.S. citizenship. The legal assistance will be free for the federal immigration process, and assistance in applying for reduced or waived application fees will be shown to low-income individuals.
According to Dorcas International, almost one in three Providence residents were born in another country, and almost half speak a language other than English. Because of the work they provide, almost 50% of Providence immigrants are naturalized U.S. citizens. According to its website, Dorcas International is active in 14 countries and three regions, working to improve the resilience and livelihoods of vulnerable people living in poverty, exclusion and crisis.
And the organization is genuine in its work, drawing in clients and making them feel like family. In October, it held a Community Give Back Day, with health and wellness screenings and information and services of every kind, as well as fresh fruits and vegetables — and a pizza party — to enjoy with the family. There were goodie bags for the kids, plus books, arts and crafts for everyone. That same month, there was a celebration called the Centennial Bash, marking 100 years of service to the underserved. The fundraiser garnered $173,000 to put back into the regular programming, so that the work could continue. And “putting back” involves people, too, as many employees were once DI clients; 41% of whom were foreign born.
Dorcas International offers professional training programs and classes, interpreting services and prep courses for citizenship exams. It is the best use of skills these men and women have learned from their ancestry and their prior life, which is celebrated annually with Heritage Day, with clothing, foods, dancing and music since one’s history isn’t lost once becoming an American citizen; it is reshaped and molded into new use here, providing every chance for success and self-sufficiency in a new life while celebrating what went before. The celebrations show clearly how beautiful the community can be, woven together of many threads and colors and textures and tastes. Most of all, it empowers. Walking alongside, teaching and encouraging goal setting — these are skills that could be useful in every community wishing to make a difference for immigration. It calls upon the old expression of “give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.” Legal citizenry, made possible by this program and all the staff, volunteers and friends who share the work, is an incredible gift. Dignity is another. And peace of mind —no further fear of deportment — is the best gift of all.