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Volunteering at the RSHM LIFE Center Immigration Legal Services

by Joanne Safian, RSHMCategory: Updates

Since the RSHM LIFE Center’s Immigration Legal Services Program began in 2013, immigration attorney Kelly Carpenter, RSHM, and her staff have provided legal services for vulnerable, lowincome immigrant families. One of those services is the naturalization application process. In 2021 alone, 70 clients became naturalized citizens. They came from Argentina, Belize, Brazil, Cape Verde, Chile, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Pakistan, Peru, Portugal, Trinidad and Tobago, and Yemen.

Preparing for naturalization

Evelyn Rios and Sr. Joanne Safian, RSHM, with one of our new citizens.

I became involved when Sr. Kelly invited me to prepare clients for their naturalization interviews and tests. Evelyn Rios, the LIFE Center’s Legal Services’ full-time paralegal, is in charge of the naturalization cases and provided guidance. So, over the past year or more, I have met via Zoom with about 24 clients, usually three or four times each.

After submitting a 20-page Application for Naturalization, a person is called for an appointment at the US Citizenship and Immigration Services of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) at Federal Plaza. That, in itself, is intimidating. I try to prepare them for what it will be like, and to be sure they have all the necessary documents.

One part of the interview is a review of the application. Some of that isn’t difficult—basic biographical information. But there are also 50 questions asking about affiliations with various groups and organizations, and personal questions about one’s behavior and character. Many clients speak English as a second language, and words such as “totalitarian,” “vigilante,” “guerrilla,” and “genocide” aren’t easy when they are nervous and asked to explain their answers. I have created a vocabulary guide for them.

Another part of the interview consists of reading and writing in English, based on vocabulary lists available to applicants, and I practice with them. At the interview, they have to write (not type) on a tablet. I always tell them to print, since we knew of one person who had failed because she wrote in script, and the officer said he could not read her handwriting.

Finally, there is the Civics (US History and Government) test. Of 100 possible questions, they are asked no more than 10 and have to get 6 right. The questions cover principles of democracy, the system of government, rights and responsibilities, American history, geography, and culture. When I first looked at the study guide, I was relieved that I knew all the answers except the exact number of members in the US House of Representatives (it’s 435). I wonder, however, how many citizens born in the US would know most of the answers. The clients have studied hard and do well as we review. The main challenge occurs if they know the answers, but don’t have an overall context, for example, that questions about slavery, the Civil War, Lincoln, and the Emancipation Proclamation are all interrelated.

The six years I lived in Italy have given me great admiration for what these clients have accomplished. We did not have to pass a test for our permesso di soggiorno (temporary residency permit), and I had gone to Italian school and had a level A2 certificate (functional Italian), but it was still somewhat stressful to go through even the soggiorno process every two years. The clients I have helped prepare for their interviews have worked so hard, and fortunately, all who spent time with me thus far have passed; I have been greatly relieved and very happy for them. They will be wonderful US citizens!

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