Erie House Celebrates Citizenship Day with Naturalization Workshop

September 21, 2016 | Chicago, IL

citizenship workshop

Erie House attorney Viviana Mendez answers a question for a volunteer providing assistance during Saturday's naturalization workshop at Truman College in Uptown. FILE PHOTO

Staff from the Citizenship and Immigration program at Erie Neighborhood House partnered with area agencies to host a naturalization workshop at Truman College on Saturday, September 17.

The event was coordinated by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights in observance of Constitution Day and Citizenship Day, a day that marks the adoption of the US Constitution and celebrates citizenship in the United States.

Staff members from a handful of area organizations were accompanied by volunteers from the American Immigration Lawyers’ Association (AILA) to provide pro bono services to legal permanent residents seeking assistance completing the application for naturalization.

In addition to the workshop, a brief press conference was also held in the Truman College cafeteria. Political representatives who were present for the event included Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill), Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill), Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, State Senator Iris Martinez (D-20th) and Alderman Carlos Rosa (35th). Each spoke of the significant contributions made by immigrants and the importance of exercising the right to vote by participating in the November 8 general election.

Karla Pineda was one of several immigrants who also spoke during the press conference. Pineda emigrated from Mexico City two decades ago and has volunteered at countless citizenship workshops through her role as a community organizer at the suburban Interfaith Leadership Project. But in spite of her longstanding commitment to helping others become citizens, Pineda had never completed the process herself until this past January.

“I was volunteering at an event at Our Lady of the Mount in Cicero,” she recalled following the press conference, “when I finally said, ‘Just do it.’” She reversed roles that day, relinquishing her volunteer duties in order to apply for naturalization.

Pineda said she is eager to vote in the upcoming election as a newly sworn-in US citizen. “It’s going to definitely be a new experience. I’m finally integrating fully into this society,” she said. “When you become complacent, you allow other people to make decisions for your community.”

Another volunteer who preferred to remain anonymous said it was important for her to help others at the citizenship workshops, something she does once a month.

“I am so happy to be helping immigrants like me,” she said, explaining how her journey had brought her to the US from India in 1994. “When I saw the difficulties people were going through, I decided I wanted to help others.”

Erie House director of citizenship and immigration services Jane Lombardi praised the role volunteers play in executing an event like this. “In our office we typically hold one-on-one consultations,” she said, noting that it can take as long as 2 hours to complete an application. “But with the help of volunteers during a workshop, we can see many more applicants at one time. That strengthens the work of all the organizations involved.”

Following the workshop, the participating organizations will thoroughly review the completed applications to ensure information is accurate. Within two weeks the applications are then sent to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) via certified mail; a copy is also sent to the applicant.

Next steps for the applicant include a fingerprint appointment 1 to 2 months after the application has been received, then an in-person interview and exams in US history and civics as well as English-language reading, writing, and speaking 4 to 6 months later. Applicants are encouraged to enroll in a class—they’re offered regularly at Erie House and by other organizations throughout the city—to brush up on exam-related content.

The process can be lengthy, but the end result is well worth the wait. Once approved for naturalization, the applicant isn’t officially a United States citizen until they have been sworn in at an oath ceremony sponsored by USCIS.

“The oath ceremony is really special,” said Lombardi, whose Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA)-recognized program helped prepare 726 applications for naturalization during the past fiscal year. “It’s rewarding for us to be able to help these individuals take the next step in their journey as Americans.”

According to Lombardi, the number of applications figures to grow in the current year, bolstered by factors such as increased demand; a tighter supply of trustworthy, affordable services; and plans for Erie House to expand services in the Little Village community.

The next naturalization workshop in which Erie House will participate is scheduled for Saturday, October 15, at the Mexican Consulate (204 S Ashland Ave). ICIRR, Juntos Podemos and La Red Mexicana are supporting organizations for the workshop. Registration will take place from 8:30 to 10:30 am, but prospective applicants are encouraged to pre-register by calling (312) 666-3430.


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