I just returned from Vancouver, Washington where together with fellow immigration attorneys, we helped legal immigrants with green cards apply for U.S. citizenship. The Washington Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) provides pro bono services three days a year at nine sites throughout Washington State at locations traditionally under-served by the availability of affordable lawyers. Citizenship Day programs were also held this weekend in Des Moines and Mt. Vernon, Washington where larger crowds were expected. AILA partners with One America, an immigrant advocacy and outreach organization that provides logistical and PR support for the program called Washington New Americans. Local community colleges and nonprofit organizations provide space and other support.
Originally started by an AILA Washington member as a once-a-year project, the program expanded nationally to every April sponsored by the national AILA office. However, our chapter, which I currently chair, expanded our program three years ago to multiple days and sites when we began our partnership with One America. Aside from lawyers who work pro bono, we also have volunteer translators, BIA accredited representatives, paralegals and other local citizens who help make the program successful. The Vancouver based newspaper, The Columbian, covered the event.
As a Seattle immigration lawyer, I don’t mind donating a few days of my time to the community along with other pro bono projects that I’m involved with for other organizations. Aside from being a fun day and a chance to get out of town, I like spending the day with my colleagues and the other volunteers, and counseling individuals who want a chance at participating more fully in their adopted homeland. Most people who apply for citizenship say they want the chance to vote and to participate politically, and I am inspired by their drive to be successful. Everyone served is appreciative of the service. On average, many of the clients who come to Citizenship Day have been permanent residents for many years. Often the steep filing fee of $680.00, not knowing where or how to get advice, and being ready to pass the civics and history or English test can be obstacles to applying. Those with difficult qualification issues who end up not filing that day are referred to other lawyers. Everyone is grateful for a chance to meet with a lawyer, learn more about the process and any issues they may have. Of those who clearly qualify, we help them prepare their applications so they are ready to be put into the mail. Most people we help are low income or of modest means who would ordinarily not be able to afford an attorney. With the State of Washington proposing to eliminate funding to nonprofits that traditionally provide pro bono or low cost citizenship help, AILA’s Citizenship Day is becoming even more important for the community, especially since immigration laws have become so complicated. And, with One America’s help, new citizens learn to become more engaged in their community.
The next Citizenship Day will be held on April 16, 2011 in Centralia, Bellingham and Wenatchee. For more information, see www.wanewamericans.org. Attorneys, paralegals and translators are invited to volunteer and must participate in a training program.