Gaining citizenship: Program helps immigrants with naturalization process


By Debra Talcott

Legal News

Since 2011, immigrants preparing to make their way through the naturalization process to go from lawful permanent resident to United States citizen have received valuable assistance from a unique outreach program in Pontiac. A partnership consisting of Catholic Social Services of Oakland County, Hispanic Outreach Ministries, and the Cooley Law School Center for Ethics, Service, and Professionalism helps immigrants file the documentation necessary to complete this complex process.

Cooley-Auburn Hills alumnus Caterina Amaro is someone who devotes her time to this worthy cause, volunteering as an on-site attorney to answer questions that are beyond the purview and experience of the Cooley law students who work with those seeking citizenship.

"Immigration law is complicated and full of nuances which can be difficult to navigate at times," says Amaro. "I am there to ensure that clients receive the proper guidance through the process."

Amaro, who has practiced immigration law with Garmo & Associates in Sterling Heights since earning her license in May 2007, guides the student volunteers through their questioning of clients regarding the naturalization application.

"The students complete the applications, and their coordinator signs and submits the applications to the office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). I am on hand to answer their questions as well as to answer client questions which are outside the students' scope of knowledge."

Volunteering at pro bono events is something Amaro enjoys. As secretary of the Hispanic Bar Association of Michigan and vice president of the Italian-American Bar Association of Michigan, she was excited to learn of the naturalization outreach program through the Cooley faculty, with whom she has maintained contact since completing her studies.

"I think it's a wonderful program that gives Cooley students a taste of what being an attorney is all about," says Amaro, who says the program fills a definite need in the Oakland County community.

"The naturalization process is intimidating. The interview and exam process is intimidating. The idea of having to take an exam in English scares people, and some spend weeks or months studying English as a second language just so they can take and pass the naturalization exam," says Amaro. "What's interesting as well is that it doesn't matter if the person taking the exam is a doctor who can read and speak English fluently or an individual who never went to school--both are just as nervous when they face their interviewing officer at USCIS."

Any natural-born citizen who tries to answer sample questions from the test years after taking a history or government class might find the task equally daunting. Questions such as "When was the Constitution written?" or "What territory did the United States buy from France in 1803?" will give the average person reason to respect the hard work of someone seeking citizenship.

The process to become a citizen costs $680 and requires applicants to demonstrate their knowledge of American history and civics during an interview by a USCIS officer. That interview is conducted in English and requires the applicant to demonstrate both reading and writing in English. Other requirements include demonstrating high moral character, paying taxes, and living as a legal permanent resident for 3-5 years, depending on the case. For example, a legal permanent resident who is married to a U.S. citizen may apply after 3 years. However, the total wait time to immigrate and become a legal citizen can range from 6 years to even 20 years.

As a nonprofit organization, Catholic Social Services of Oakland County (CCSOC) is accredited by the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) to provide immigration services. Its goal is to offer accurate information and encouragement to legal permanent residents who are fearful of the process. CSSOC conducts weekly citizenship classes, and their staff attorney devotes 3 hours a week to helping with immigration forms. CSSOC also provides intake, prescreening, and scheduling services for the immigration clinic staffed by Cooley Law School students every other week.

"We have been providing citizenship classes since 2007, when Gabriela Rodriguez from my team and I became U.S. citizens," says CSSOC Hispanic Outreach Services Program Director Luz Gayon-Telleria. "For 4 years we were able to provide immigration advice and help start the naturalization services program through the Archdiocese of Detroit, but due to the loss of funding in 2009 we stopped providing these services. Thanks to the interest shown by attorney Dionnie Wynter from Thomas M. Cooley Law School, we were able to resume providing these services to the community," Gayon-Telleria explains.

According to a report issued by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security - Office of Immigration Statistics, 12.6 million legal permanent residents lived in the United States as of January 1, 2010. Of that number, 8.1 million were eligible to become naturalized citizens. The top five leading countries of birth of those eligible were Mexico, China, India, the Philippines, and the Dominican Republic.

"We know the barriers that legal permanent residents face--the language barrier, low income, little education, and confusion or misinformation about their opportunity to become a citizen," says Gayon-Telleria, who says that, without this valuable outreach program, these barriers could allow predators to take advantage of those who need help.

"One case that we will always remember is that of a 76-year-old lady who became a U.S. citizen after we worked with her and gave her the confidence to face her abuser husband, start her literacy education, and for the first time in her life feel that she has value."

Gayon-Telleria says this new citizen has since voted in elections and even contributed to a presidential campaign. Despite minimal economic resources, she is proud to participate in the process and exercise her rights.

As a Cooley Law School student volunteer with the Oakland County program, Ulises Macias Robles spends approximately 6 hours every month screening and interviewing clients and helping them fill out forms.

"As a naturalized U.S. citizen myself, I have an interest in immigration law and know some of the struggles people looking to get their legal status have to face," says Macias Robles. "I felt I could relate with the clients in Pontiac and that I could use my acquired knowledge to help them."

As a student leader, Macias Robles assigns other Cooley students their roles and interprets conversations from English to Spanish and vice versa. Looking forward to graduating in 2014, Macias Robles says working with the outreach program has reinforced his interest in immigration law.

Something Caterina Amaro, Luz Gayon-Telleria, and Ulises Macias Robles share through their work with this valuable program is their knowledge of just how much achieving legal U.S. citizenship means to the clients who are granted this new status.

"People spend their whole lives dreaming of coming to the United States and providing a better life for their families," says Amaro. "The security of being a citizen of the United States is their ultimate dream come true."

For additional information about the naturalization outreach services program, contact Luz Gayon-Telleria of Catholic Social Services of Oakland County at (248) 338-4250, ext. 3703.

Published: Wed, Jun 6, 2012