By Laura Lovett
When Brookline high senior Jose Andres Merida went on a school trip to Spain last year, he was separated from his classmates at the customs line. Although he had lived in the United States for most of his life, he was not a citizen.
In June he became a U.S. citizen and has a shiny blue passport to prove it.
Twenty-six percent of Brookline residents were born outside the United States, and about half of those have gained U.S. citizenship, according to the Brookline Community Foundation report.
But the path to citizenship is often complicated and that’s where Project Citizenship comes in. Based in Faneuil Hall in Boston, the organization helped the Merida family navigate the process.
The organization has helped some 6,285 immigrants fill out the 21-page application form, prepare for the test and apply for citizenship, according to its website. The group has full-time staff as well as a stable of pro-bono attorneys and other volunteers.
Recently the Brookline Community Foundation provided a $3,000 grant to the organization. Project Citizenship is partnering with the Brookline Public Library and the United State Citizenship and Immigration services to begin a campaign in Brookline to help families such as the Meridas.
According to Executive Director Veronica Serrato, the project will help residents of Brookline – and those who work in town achieve citizenship.
The Merida family appears to be your typical Brookline families: Ali Mariana, mother to Jose and two other children who attend Brookline Schools, spent plenty of time helping with events at the Lawrence school. And Jose Sr. helps where he can when he’s not working.
The Meridas emigrated from Guatemala more than 15 years ago, where both Ali Mariana and Jose Sr. were working professionals. When their daughter, Ana, was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, they decided to move to the U.S. to get her the treatment she needed.
With $50 in her pocket, Ali Mariana Merida flew with her daughter to Boston for treatment at Children’s Hospital. Six months later, with their visas expiring, the family had to make a decision, said Ali Mariana: Go back to Guatemala and risk their daughter’s health or stay in the U.S. without U.S. permission and risk legal trouble. The family opted to stay.
“Everything was a challenge for us. The fear that we were always suffering is something that many people who are illegal here understand,” said Ali Mariana. “It is easy to judge. It is easy to say we don’t want more people here.”
But eventually, Jose Sr. gained sponsorship for a job working at a bakery and was able to secure residency for his family.
“There were a lot of beautiful persons that God put in my path in Brookline,” said Ali Mariana.
With the help of Brookline residents and Lawrence School teachers who helped the Merida children learn English, the family was able to settle into the Brookline community. Alia Mariana, like many Brookline moms, often keeps up with things Brookline on Facebook.
That’s how she found out about the Project Citizenship.
In order to be eligible for the project, residents must be at least 18, be a legal permanent resident for at least five years, be able to read and write in basic English, pay the $680 application fee or have a public benefits letter and take an oath to the U.S. and Constitution.
After applicants fill out the piles of paper work, citizen seekers get fingerprinted, attend an interview and take a written and oral exam.
Once an applicant passes the exams, it’s time for a naturalization ceremony where participants take an oath of allegiance and receive a certification of naturalization. From the time that the application is filed to the naturalization ceremony takes about six to seven months, according to the Project Citizenship.
It wasn’t long before she and her husband paid a visit to the Boston office and got help filling out the application and volunteers gave them study tools.
“[You] just have to call and here they will let you know what you have to do,” said Ali Mariana.
Ajay Zutshi, a Brookline resident and attorney at Goodwin Procter, does pro bono work for the project. He said he sees participants when they are filling out the application; a process he says can be complex.
But being able to become a citizen is something fundamental to America, said Zutshi.
“My belief is that for one to establish something beautiful, you have to risk everything in your life so that the life of those you leave behind will live better than you and your ancestors did,” Jose Andres wrote in his college essay.
He’s already been accepted to four colleges and is waiting to hear from more. He has opportunities unavailable in Guatemala where he said he would have most likely finished high school and entered the work force.
Now he’s planning on majoring in business. He also has volunteered to help translate for others at Project Citizenship.
There was a lot of pressure for the Merida family to finish the process as quickly as possible because Jose Andres was soon turning 18. If children are not yet adults and a parent becomes a citizen the child will automatically get citizenship.
Jose Sr. did not pass his first citizenship test because his English wasn’t good enough. But after more studying and time, he passed with flying colors, he said.
Jose Andres’s mother passed her exams and he was able to become a citizen two days before his birthday.
“My life is a miracle,” said Ali Mariana. “My American dream was for my daughter to be healthy.”
Photos by Kate Flock, Wicked Local Brookline