by Emma Israel, AmeriCorps New Americans Integration Program Service Member
I had only been at Project Citizenship for a few days, when a family from the Dominican Republic came in with a beautiful orchid as a token of their appreciation. They came straight to our office after taking their oath as new U.S. citizens.
As I sit here at my desk today, 6 months later, the office is bustling as it always is. There are two law students assisting a Honduran woman as she completes her citizenship application. At the next table my co-worker is helping another law student fill out paperwork for a Dominican client’s three young sons. Meanwhile, the phone is ringing off the hook, as it always does.
Since I started my year of service at Project Citizenship, I’ve worked with hundreds of people who are starting the final step of their immigration journey. A seemingly endless stream of eligible legal permanent residents calls our office every day looking for assistance navigating the complicated process to citizenship. As word spreads about the support Project Citizenship provides, our tiny staff and large contingent of volunteers do our best to keep up. It seems like the organization as a whole has hit its stride: we have a system that works, we’re good at what we do, and it’s a good time to be doing this work.
When I started my AmeriCorps year of service, I was repeatedly warned how tough the year would be. AmeriCorps alumni told me that the workload is heavy, the clients can be challenging, and people rarely show their appreciation for the time and energy I am dedicating. They were right about the workload – my to-do list seems to never end. Beyond that, my experience has contradicted all those warnings.
The clients I work with and talk to every day are what have made my year of service rewarding and meaningful. While there may be a few that are challenging, the vast majority are a pleasure to serve.
The naturalization process is a lengthy and difficult one. It requires completing a 21 page application, learning the answers to 100 U.S. history and civics questions, attending an interview with federal immigration officers, and a lot of money: $680 in fees. For these immigrants, navigating this country’s federal bureaucracy can be a stressful experience. While the benefits of naturalizing are huge, they pay off in the long run. Legal permanent residents who naturalize tend to get better jobs and see an increase in their earnings, they become eligible to receive Social Security benefits when they retire, and have access to more public benefits. For many legal permanent residents, becoming a citizen understandably falls lower on their priority lists than more short-term needs. They are focused on paying rent, on supporting their children, and on their jobs. Word of our free services spreads like wildfire, and with our assistance making the process easier, people become eager to get started.
I learned early on how appreciative our clients are for our assistance. Shortly after the orchid arrived, another applicant came by with a small money tree that now sits on my desk. One applicant has brought a small box of cookies each of the three times we’ve met with her. Today in the mail we received a thank you card from a client who will be sworn in next week. Our clients are so grateful for the assistance in navigating the complicated process, and it shows in their “thank yous” when they leave, their smiles when we talk, and their blessings over the phone.
To me, the service I am providing is straightforward: fill out paperwork. To the clients I serve, it is life changing. It is rewarding to know that what I’ve been able to learn during my time at Project Citizenship can help so many people start down the path to more secure lives in this country. It doesn’t take much to be able to have a lasting impact on their lives, and I’m honored to be able to serve them in that way.