ABOUT 150 aspiring Americans found help overcoming language, legal and clerical barriers at the Pan Asian Citizenship Event held on Saturday, September 17 in Los Angeles.
Volunteers and staffers representing a coalition of 12 nonprofit organizations serving the city’s immigrant community performed consultations at the East Los Angeles Community Center in at least seven different languages with residents who hope to become American citizens.
The event was part of a larger campaign titled Citizenship Now! that is reaching out to the roughly 165,000 Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) in Los Angeles who are eligible for naturalization.
“I was due in 1996 to apply for citizenship,” said Welhelmina Concepcion while going over forms during a session at Saturday’s workshop. “I wasn’t earning enough for the filing fee, so I had to wait.”
Many people who need immigration services cannot afford them, according to Jennifer Ganata, a staff attorney for the inner city law center who was volunteering on Saturday on behalf of the Pilipino Workers Center (PWC). She told the Asian Journal that the citizenship event and similar immigration workshops hosted year-round by organizations like Asian Americans Advancing Justice–LA (Advancing Justice–LA) allow eligible applicants to get answers to important questions from qualified attorneys.
“Maganda na meron silang ganito, dahil ina-assist nila kami, natutulungan kami kung papaano ang talagang pag fill-up nang forms (It’s good they have [events] like this to assist us and teach us how to properly fill out the forms),” said applicant Priscilla Mencia. “Sa tulong nila … madali lang (With their help, the process is fast).”
The intricacy of the paperwork required for naturalization can make the process difficult to approach alone for not just those learning English, but fluent speakers of the language as well, according to Lawrence Shih, the assistant field deputy for County Supervisor Hilda Solis. He recalled having an unexpectedly hard time filling out forms for a former patient when he was working with the Department of Public Health.
“I needed to get help from USCIS…it took me weeks to figure out who to contact,” said Shih during a press event amidst Saturday’s workshop. “If it took me that much time to figure out, imagine what it must be like for other people.”
In the past, members of the immigrant community were known to face covert discrimination from authorities, according to the Los Angeles Community College Board Vice President Mike Eng.
“Immigration officials colluded to muffle their words together, making it harder for applicants to pass the citizenship test,” said Eng on Saturday.
Shih also warned of “unscrupulous individuals” who sought to take advantage of the immigrant community. He told the Asian Journal that anyone who suspects that they might be the victim of an imposter posing as an immigration attorney should request his or her bar number and cross reference it against state records.
“Be careful of who you seek help from for your application,” said Yey Coronel, the executive director of the Filipino American Service Group Inc. (FASGI). “The information requested is very specific.”
She recalled a past client who had been helped by a paralegal before coming to FASGI. She said the client was encouraged to submit unnecessary information that wound up complicating the process and raising questions from immigration officials.
Coronel encourages people seeking citizenship to consult with Advancing Justice–LA, FASGI, PWC, or one of many other non-profit organizations offering free or low-cost immigration services in the Los Angeles area. Their efforts, including campaigns like Citizenship Now!, play a valuable role in maintaining the transparency of, and access to the citizenship process, according to volunteers and activists at the event.
“The most important thing for us is to make sure that every client has an opportunity to meet with an attorney, get their questions answered, and make sure their applications are free of error,” said Nasim Khansari, citizenship project director at Advancing Justice–LA. “We’re not turning anyone away.”
Even if issues regarding an applicant’s travel history or criminal record make their case too complicated to handle at a workshop, they can still get help by contacting one of the nonprofit partners sponsoring the Citizenship Now! campaign. (Eric Anthony Licas / AJ Press)