Michigan Immigration and Labor Law Association Clinic Assists Immigrants Pursuing Citizenship

By Jason Searle
U-M Law

Diarmaid, Marge, and Eamona have resided in the United States as legal permanent residents (LPRs) for 24 years and have lived in Ann Arbor for 22 years. But recent events propelled them to apply for U.S. citizenship in late January with the help of volunteers from the Michigan Immigration and Labor Law Association (MILLA) at Michigan Law. Marge is Hong Kong-Canadian; her husband, Diarmaid, is Irish; and their son, Eamona, is Canadian. She found out about the clinic through an information session in November that drew more than 200 people. What brought the family to apply for citizenship at last?

“One impetus,” Diarmaid explained, “was when we experienced difficulties renewing our green cards this last time around. It took a year, and for four months of that, I could not leave the country.”

The trio found the situation inconvenient and unfortunate, particularly because they were unable to visit family living in Canada and Britain.

“It was uncomfortable, to put it mildly,” Diarmaid said.

Marge, Diarmaid, and Eamona are not alone in feeling a sudden urge to move from LPR status to full U.S. citizenship. One of the clinic’s organizers was Wojciech Zolnowski, a Polish immigrant who is executive director of the International Institute of Metropolitan Detroit and a representative of the New Americans Campaign (NAC)—a coalition of several immigrant-services organizations that has offices nationwide and helps more than 200,000 people apply for citizenship every year. Zolnowski said that Marge, Diarmaid, and Eamona fit into a larger pattern of immigrant movement over the past year.

“We have seen an increased demand for our services from those we call ‘the procrastinators,’ LPRs who have resided in the United States for years and have put off applying for citizenship,” Zolnowski explained. He and his colleagues attribute the new demand for services to the shift in the political climate since the election of Donald Trump. LPRs hope to dispel uncertainty and avoid a host of problems, including deportation.

“People think Trump is going to deport everyone,” said Raad Yousif, a case manager for the Chaldean Community Foundation (CCF) who assisted at the clinic. Yousif has noticed a significant increase in fear and caution among CCF clients, reflected in behavioral changes such as decreased travel outside the United States.

To help immigrants on this path to citizenship and security, MILLA has partnered with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center (MIRC) and NAC for three years. The clinic provides the seemingly simple but important service of applying for citizenship. This year’s clinic was busy as ever. Volunteers and applicants were spread throughout the rows of the lecture hall at numbered stations, with stacks of applications near the front of the room. Volunteers paired individually with patrons to help them through the application. The atmosphere was busy but casual, and also joyful.

In the middle of it all, 23 Michigan Law student volunteers helped organize the event and guide patrons through their applications.

“I had a lot of fun making connections,” said Erin Hoya, a 2L, explaining how she built rapport with one of the applicants by chatting about travel in Fiji and Bali. The woman had been an LPR for more than 20 years when recently her child had a schizophrenic attack. The son was criminally charged before being diagnosed with schizophrenia, and for a time there was a threat he would be deported.

“She was grateful for the one-on-one advising,” Hoya said. “She would not have known how to get those resources otherwise.” Alex Walling, a 2L and co-president of MILLA, helped organize and run the event.

“One of the most shocking things I learned while planning this clinic was the dramatically different treatment federal law gives to LPRs versus U.S. citizens. LPRs cannot vote, are ineligible for many public benefits, and can be deported at any time for any number of reasons.” Walling came away with greater gratitude for his own citizenship, as well as an appreciation for how valuable this process is to LPRs. “Many were extremely excited about becoming U.S. citizens. At one point, a family of five applied for citizenship together, which was exciting.”

Walling also praised MIRC, which runs a number of these kinds of clinics in various locations, as an organizing partner.

“The workshop reduces barriers for people looking to acquire citizenship,” explained Ruby Robinson, a MIRC supervising attorney. “And of course [our services] are free.” Without the clinic, Robinson noted that clients would have to hire private, for-profit services (some of which he described as “unscrupulous”) or fill out the application on their own. “It’s like taxes. People could do it on their own, but sometimes it’s better to go to a professional,” Robinson said.

The high demand and significant turnout to the clinic show that many LPRs agree.

“We had been thinking about the possibility [of applying] but wanted to know about changes in regulations,” said Diarmaid. “We found today to be easy and helpful, especially the one-on-one attention.”

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