The City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection will open its arms to a few more adopted siblings of sorts, on Pro Bono Citizenship Day March 31.
The Pro Bono Citizenship Day, sponsored by the American Immigration Lawyers Association, will provide free immigration services to long-term lawful immigrants who do not have proper immigration documentation.
“This is aimed at helping low income permanent residents apply for United States citizenship,” said AILA spokeswoman Lisa Felix. “Normally, we have it at the end of April, but the processing time with the Immigration Service takes between 6 to 10 months, depending on documentation and the numbers of applicants, so we moved it up a month.”
The Philadelphia chapter of the AILA will hold a series of pre-Citizenship Day information sessions throughout the city. They begin on Saturday, March 10 at noon at the ACES African Center for Education and Sustainability; subsequent sessions will be held at 6 p.m. March 12 at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish, 1719 Morris St.; 4 p.m. March 13 at the Nationalities Service Center, 1216 Arch St.; 2 p.m. Thursday, March 15 at the Korean Community Development Services Center, 6055 N. 5th St.; 1 p.m. Saturday, March 17 at the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia, 5412 N. 5th St.; 5:30 p.m. Monday, March 19 at New World Association, 9857 Bustleton Ave.; 6 p.m. Thursday, March 22 at Esperanza, 4261 N. 5th St. and at noon on Saturday, March 24 at Multicultural Community Family Services, 7016 Terminal Square, Upper Darby, Pa.
“For the people that come to the information sessions, we will screen them then,” Felix said. “But we can only handle very clean cases; folks that have an [outstanding immigration] issue will be referred to a specific immigration lawyer.”
The program helps, Felix says. Last year, the effort assisted 80 individuals overall, and deployed 33 volunteer attorneys, eight law students and five other volunteers.
Felix hopes for even greater numbers this year.
“We are aiming for 120 applicants this year … last year, we had people from 18 different countries take part,” Felix said. “Obtaining citizenship is important in taking part in American life, such as voting.”
Myriad organizations have supported the effort, with the Mayor’s Commission on Literacy being one of the leading forces. The outfit, created in 1983 via a charter from former mayor W. Wilson Goode Jr., initially began life as a government agency tasked with funding GED, adult basic and family literacy programs. The MCOL changed its focus in 2004, when the Free Library of Philadelphia incorporated it.
“The two main populations we’re helping are people with limited income and older people, specifically people who have lived in America for 15–20 years,” said Adjua McNeil, the commission’s director of adult literacy programs. “It’s about empowering adults to become active members of the workforce; nothing says ‘employment opportunities’ like citizenship.”
Both Felix and McNeil said that if someone were to pay for all the services offered for free, it would cost nearly $2,000; the application alone is $700. That may dissuade many eligible immigrants from applying. That, coupled with a likely language barrier, can make things hard on the wishful American-to-be. McNeil said those attending the workshops will receive a digital kit on CD, which includes testing materials and other documentation. The Commission has also put together an informative site, https://sites.google.com/site/uscitizenshipday/ that provides more information.
“There are special waivers for older immigrants, and the rules now allow them to take the test in their native language,” McNeil said. “Without citizenship, they are literally not able to access Medicare and other programs designed for older Americans.
“We are really trying to help those that are most needy and have shown a commitment to staying here and becoming productive citizens.”