Advocating for municipal or state funding for immigration legal services

By Adriana Jaramillo, Senior Program Specialist, Immigrant Integration, UnidosUS

There are approximately nine million lawful permanent residents (LPRs) in the United States who are eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship, but have not yet taken that important step. One of the top reasons why LPRs who are eligible to naturalize and meet all the requirements and want to do so, but have not yet applied, is because of the cost associated with the process. This includes not only the application fee, but also the legal services to help walk clients through the journey of naturalization. Legal service providers not only help eligible LPRs through the process, but they also promote citizenship, educate the community on the benefits, and prepare applicants for the civics and English test. In addition to assisting with citizenship applications, legal service providers are seeing an increase in demand for services, including applications for DACA renewals, and temporary protected status (TPS) for immigrants from Venezuela, Syria, Burma, and soon, Haiti.

Investing in immigration legal services to assist immigrants in applying for citizenship brings great returns to the community. Naturalization provides economic and civic gains for the person, the local community, the state, and the country. An engaged citizenry creates a more informed and vibrant civic culture, and the economic gains to the individual translate to positive effects on the local and national economy. Now is the time for state and local governments to invest in these services since, due to the pandemic, they are receiving federal investments that are putting their coffers in good shape and the demand for low-cost, high-quality immigration legal services exceeds the supply. This demand has only increased over the years and it remains constant. In addition, there is a funding gap for the immigration services field to provide effective application assistance services to low-income applicants. With substantial relief funds going to state and local governments, now is the time for some of these resources to be invested in immigration legal services.

UnidosUS, in partnership with the New Americans Campaign (NAC), developed a new tool kit with several tips on how to advocate for funding for immigration legal services that can help you make the case. This tool kit identifies the best practices from several NAC partners and includes templates for building advocacy campaigns for public investments in immigration legal services. It also includes tips and ideas on identifying local allies and understanding your local budget systems. NAC partners have used this guidance in legislative appropriations, discretionary funding sources, and flexible grant programs where advocacy can be used to include citizenship application assistance as an allowable program activity. During a webinar organized by UnidosUS, NAC partners shared some examples of how funding was achieved and implemented to support access to legal services for immigrants.

For example, UnidosUS Affiliate CASA shared how they conducted advocacy locally to build support with county executives in Maryland for local funding. They first educated their local officials on why this funding was necessary and how it would help many LPRs that were going through financial hardship to apply for citizenship. After meeting with them, they invited the county executives to a citizenship day event. This allowed CASA to show the importance of the work they do and how they do it. It was also an opportunity for county executives to meet with the applicants and volunteers to talk about their experience and motivations. Once this relationship was established and the county executives got to experience the process in person, they were determined to support this work. CASA advocated for funding for a scholarship that they can offer their clients to help them pay for their citizenship application. This scholarship has endured and has been included in the county budget for the past three to four years even with a change in county leadership.

Another example of an immigration legal services program is the Seattle New Citizen Program which receives both city and state funding. This program has been funded and established for many years, and each year city council members are invited to citizenship events to learn about the obstacles faced in providing citizenship application assistance and why city funding is critical. The funding for the program is now well-established and is regularly included in the city budget. In fact, the funding was initially only for naturalization services but has been expanded to cover more immigration legal services, including removal defense. Having an elected official be a champion for this funding results in an advocate for legal service providers in government.

In the places where advocates have made the case for local funding, the funds have been made available year after year, and the amount of funding has grown. Washington, DC, is an example where an immigration legal services fund was started in 2016 with $500,000 and has expanded each year to $2.5 million allocated for fiscal year 2020.

The tool kit is designed to be a starting point either for organizations to start an advocacy effort or to share with local allies who may not have the background or experience in advocacy or providing immigration legal services, and the tool kit can be used to bring them into local efforts. The talking points provided in the tool kit can be shared with allies to build support and to generate more specific and local examples about the benefits of naturalization for the local community and state. The tool kit also includes examples and links to existing resources of funding at the state and local level. This can be useful in talking with elected officials so that they understand they would be joining existing efforts to support the inclusion of immigrants and strengthening their local economies.

If you are interested in learning more on the why and how to advocate for municipal or state funding for immigration legal services, download and share a copy of UnidosUS and The New Americans Campaign’s Best Practices Tool Kit.

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