By Stephanie Presch, Content Specialist, UnidosUS
UnidosUS fights for an immigration system that values the basic dignity and human rights of all people. It’s because we believe that everyone in America who is willing to work hard should have the opportunity to get ahead. And it’s a belief shared by the majority of people in this country.
The Trump administration’s desire to increase these fees is a direct attack on the American values that make our country great. This is part of their aim to continue to divide our country for their own ends.
Last month the Trump administration proposed changes to the fees paid by immigrants when they submit their applications to become citizens. The citizenship application fee would rise from $725 to $1,170 per application, and for the first time ever, those seeking asylum in the United States would be required to pay a fee of $50.
This is wrong. Increasing application fees that are already in excess of $700 has the potential to choke off access to citizenship for many eligible lawful permanent residents who come from across the globe.
One of the ways that UnidosUS is helping to combat increasing application fees is through FuenteCredito, online credit application that can, among other options, match people with loans that can be used to cover their immigration expenses.
UnidosUS also works with several of our Affiliates through the New Americans Campaign, which works to help eligible lawful permanent residents apply for citizenship, providing application assistance for free or at a minimal cost.
SERVING FLORIDIANS ACROSS THE STATE
Redlands Christian Migrant Association (RCMA) is one of the UnidosUS Affiliates that works with the New Americans Campaign. Erica Villafuerte, Immigration Program Manager at RCMA, explains that the organization runs immigration workshops across 21 counties in Florida.
Villafuerte has been involved with RCMA for years, beginning when her child attended their childcare program. After they graduated, Villafuerte—who was working for an RCMA community partner at the time—became a member of RCMA’s board.
When she saw an opening for a preschool director role, she started working at RCMA full-time. Several years later, she had the opportunity to transition to the immigration department—something that she always wanted to do.
Through a partnership with UnidosUS, RCMA is able to reach potential new Americans across the state in their workshops.
Many of the counties that RCMA serves are very rural. Villafuerte says that they conduct a community assessment to determine where workshops should be held, often working with community health centers or local churches.
“We go into the community or to a trusted site so that they know that we are trusted folks to continue to come in and provide that service,” she says.
The workshops have not been without their challenges. The biggest obstacle for a person looking to submit an application? “Primarily them not being ready on the day of the event,” Villafuerte says.
She goes on to explain what she means by ‘not being ready’. “They would come with their legal permanent resident card, and what they thought they needed—but if they had a confrontation with CBP at some point, we won’t have that information. If they have a criminal record, we won’t have that information. Or their travel history,” she says.
Looking for immigration legal services close to you? Use Immilocal, UnidosUS’ new tool that combines a directory of nonprofit immigration legal service providers, and financial lenders which can offer financial aid for naturalization applications. https://t.co/5mVMD0Fa9u
— UnidosUS (@WeAreUnidosUS) July 20, 2019
A LOT OF HESITATION
While the fee waivers that are available through the campaign can help people take that step toward citizenship, Villafuerte says that RCMA has encountered “a lot of hesitation” from some of its prospective clients.
“If they’re seeing something on the news related to public charge, they don’t want to apply for the waivers because that’s going to hinder them some sort of way with their immigration status,” Villafuerte explains.
Even when people are eligible for these benefits, worry over decisions and developments coming out of the Trump administration often hold them back.
To combat those fears, Villafuerte and her team build relationships with members of the community so that they can be viewed as trusted sources of information.
Villafuerte’s team numbers five Department of Justice accredited representatives, and at least three to five volunteers. Sometimes, depending on which part of the state they’re serving, they could have as many as an additional 15 volunteers.
Once Villafuerte and her colleagues connect with the community, they are poised to make an impact. “They’ll call with questions and we will invite them into the office so that we can provide them with as much information as possible,” she explains.
She adds that while some are concerned about the news coming from the Trump administration, others have used it to push themselves forward toward citizenship. “We have had some clients, thankfully, that have said that because of public charge, they want to hurry up and try to become citizens so that it doesn’t apply to them,” Villafuerte explains.
Still others take in RCMA’s information but are uncertain about continuing along in the process to become citizens. Gloria was one of them.
Gloria has been a legal permanent resident for decades. At the time that she connected with RCMA, the organization was using social media to advertise their citizenship workshops to the public. When her daughter saw the advertisement, she urged her to check it out.
When Villafuerte met her at the workshop, she found out that this wasn’t the first time that Gloria had explored becoming a citizen. In fact, years earlier, she’d gone to a different citizenship workshop in Miami.
“When she went, she spoke to the attorney who said that yes, she was eligible for citizenship and she would qualify for a fee waiver based on her income. All that she’d have to pay was $1,000 for legal services,” Villafuerte says.
Applying for citizenship is already expensive, but the cost of legal fees on top of the cost of the application put it out of reach. However, when Gloria found out that RCMA was providing free services, she decided to take a chance and try again.
This is how Gloria describes her experience:
The process went very well. The day of the event, I was treated well. When I left there, I wasn’t sure if I was going to mail in the packet. I was having car problems and needed to fix my car. I needed to get some dental work done. I was afraid to send in the packet and have to pay for the application. I had money saved up, but I needed for the car and for my teeth. I almost didn’t send it in, I couldn’t believe that it was free. My friend went with me to the event. He told me to mail it in. I got the courage to send it in. The people at immigration treated me well. I didn’t think this would happen to me. I didn’t think I would ever be a citizen.
Gloria is one of the many people that RCMA has been able to help through their citizenship workshops. As Villafuerte notes, between July 2018 and September 2019, RCMA was able to assist more than 200 people with the citizenship process.
‘IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME’
RCMA operates in many rural areas, and in these areas, it’s all about who you know. It makes the relationships that the organization has with churches, elementary schools, and an adult school even more valuable.
Villafuerte notes that even when a lot of people attending a workshop don’t make it through the entire program, several do.
“If you build it, they will come,” she says.