Citizenship Resources Rely on State Funding

by Sophie Vodvarka, for Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights

April 29, 2017

Essential Citizenship Resources to be Cut if State Budget is Not Fully Funded

Citizenship mega-workshop highlights need for services provided under the Immigrant Services Line Item

(Chicago, IL) Irasema Soriano Sanchez will celebrate two exciting milestones this summer: graduating from DePaul University with a degree in Political Science, and completing the final steps to becoming a US citizen.

Today, Sanchez, a wife and mother who immigrated to the United States in 2004 from Oaxaca, Mexico, is assisting over 200 immigrants like herself in the application process to become citizens at a mega-workshop at Instituto Del Progreso Latino.

“It’s very exciting to become a citizen, and the process is very exciting! It makes you think: ‘Oh my gosh I’m going to be a part of this country now!’”

Sanchez, who practiced civil law in Mexico, is excited for the doors that will open when she becomes a US citizen.

“The most important thing is to vote. I want to be part of a decision in this country! Also I am a student, a volunteer, and a mom.  I feel I am an example to my family, that hard work can help accomplish goals.  I want to be a good citizen.”

Today’s citizenship workshop is staffed by volunteers from organizations from throughout the country who came to Chicago this week to attend the New Americans Campaign annual conference.  For the past several days, nearly 250 people representing 133 organizations from 38 different cities across the country gathered in Chicago to share citizenship best practice at the conference. Mayor Rahm Emanuel kicked off the plenary session at Malcolm X College on Thursday but the conference culminates on Saturday with a citizenship mega workshop at Instituto del Progreso Latino, which will help 200 people become US Citizens.

Workshops like these take place every week throughout Illinois. However, due to the Governor and General Assembly’s inability to pass a fully-funded state budget, citizenship services like these could cease to exist all-together. It is the third year in a row that the workshops through New Americans Initiative, a program funded through the Immigrant Services Line Item, has been at risk of being entirely gutted. If at the end of June a full budget or a stop-gap budget does not pass, citizenship services like these will not be able to continue.

“There are currently 385,000 Legal Permanent Residents in Illinois who are eligible to become citizens,” said Breandan MaGee, senior programs director at Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, the organization that oversees the New Americans Initiative grant.

Barriers to citizenship however, have prevented many from completing the process of becoming a US citizen.

“Applicants must pay $725 to go through the citizenship process, and paying the fee does not guarantee you will become a citizen. This cost, as well as fear of the language barrier of the written exam and interview prevent many people from applying,” said Alima Teran, of Instituto del Progreso Latino.

These problems are a mainly a result of a lack of knowledge of resources and information. This is why the citizenship workshops like todays are so important in the 6-8 month process of becoming a citizen.

The workshop includes legal screenings, which would otherwise be unaffordable to many immigrants. Assistance also includes case-management and help with the application.

English classes, too, are covered under the Immigrant Services Line Item.

“There are a lot of people who know how important it is to learn English because they want to work.  There are people who have 2 jobs and they go to English classes. They know how important it is to learn English,” Sanchez said. “The classroom is the place where you can learn how to have a voice, learn about your personal experience and gain a new language.”

Without the funding for these citizenship workshops, English classes and legal screenings, the process for achieving citizenship would be much more difficult.

“It would cut opportunities for people,” Sanchez said. “Sometimes people don’t know what to do.  Information is very important because when people are informed they get to decide what to do. If they are not informed they don’t know that there are ways to help become a citizen.”