U.S. citizenship candidates take the oath of citizenship at a naturalization ceremony at the Los Angeles Convention Center on August 23, 2012 in Los Angeles. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Program breaks down barriers to citizenship

Maria Gonzalez had been living in the U.S. since 1988, but couldn’t afford to become a U.S. citizen. The application fee, which has climbed from $69 in 1989 to $680 today, was too much for the mother of three who was working two jobs.

“I was working in the country, picking fruit,” she says in Spanish. “And I was working as a maid, cleaning houses and ironing clothes. I wanted a better job and a chance to vote.” That’s when Gonzalez went to a workshop run by the  New Americans Campaign, a national network of 80 immigrant rights organizations with the goal of helping legally-qualified residents apply for citizenship.

Gonzalez is just one of the 24,000 people who have completed naturalization applications with New Americans’ help.

She attended workshops where they showed her how to waive the expensive fee, fill out her application, gather documentation and work on her English. Gonzalez has gotten better jobs thanks to their computer training courses and hopes to bring her son in Mexico to live with her in Encino, CA. “I wanted to help my children and myself, but I also wanted to serve my community and my country,” she says.

Last year, there were 8.5 million eligible immigrants living in the US, but only 750,000 applied for citizenship. And not every immigrant who applied was approved. In other words, becoming a U.S. citizen isn’t easy.

Through workshops, test preparation, pro bono legal advice and a national hotline, the New Americans Campaign helps immigrants navigate the daunting — and expensive — process so they can vote, have access to more jobs and become fully American.

“We’ve always served the Latino community, but now we’ve been able to leverage the tools, resources and knowledge based off of local groups who’ve been doing this for years,” says Lizette Escobedo, NALEO Educational Fund’s Director of National Programs and Community Relations. NALEO (National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials) is one of many organizations partnering with local non-profits to create the New Americans Campaign.

Combining local and national organizations — such as the Immigration Rights Network, Asian Pacific American Legal Center, NALEO and many more — allows New Americans to have a wider reach.

Together, they have hundreds of volunteers in Charlotte, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York and San Jose, where there are 3.3 million citizenship-eligible individuals. That means more workshops for aspiring citizens to prepare for exams or come in with documents and leave with a fully packaged 10-page application, a label addressed to Immigration Services and a certified mail receipt.

The national partnerships also mean more funding. “In the past all of these national organizations were getting funded on their own. Now the funders are thinking if these national organizations can come together and collaborate, we can also come together to create collaborative funding too,” says Escobedo.

Since its inception in July 2011, New Americans has had $20 million in funding. The program has also saved aspiring citizens an estimated $20 million in legal fees with the help of their volunteer pro bono lawyers.

According to Escobedo, every volunteer and organization has their own reason for devoting their time and energy to the cause. “Some want to make sure they have access to legal services because it makes sense to do it because they are from under-served communities. We really want to increase the political power of Latinos,” she says of NALEO’s involvement.

Many of the residents who come to the New Americans campaign have been living in the US for decades. They have children who are born here and own businesses. “They already feel American and incorporated into society. The next step is to fill out this application for citizenship so they can vote, choose their leaders and ensure their voice is heard,” says Escobedo.

That resonates with people like New Americans success Zuleda Metilech, who came to the US from Panama in 1995 but only recently became a citizen. When asked why citizenship was so important, she said, “I wanted to vote for president. I wanted to be fully American.”

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