I happened to begin my year of service at Project Citizenship during what sure feels like a time of rising xenophobia. For political leaders across the globe, immigrants are the scapegoat of choice. I only ever get small glimpses into the lives of the immigrants that Project Citizenship serves, but I can’t get the fearmongering in our national discourse to square with what I witness. Meet a few of our clients:
There’s the older gentleman from the Dominican Republic, a cancer survivor with cognitive difficulties, who had once been arrested after a misunderstanding with a police officer. Before his naturalization interview, we chatted about baseball to stave off the nerves. He passed the interview with flying colors. With his deep love for America’s “national pastime,” he was practically an American already; now, with a certificate of citizenship, he enjoys the same rights that those born in this country automatically inherit.
There are the teenaged twin sisters who derived citizenship from their father, himself a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Haiti. The sisters are wading through the frustrating, bureaucratic quagmire of applying for a certificate of citizenship with patience and grace. They were very particular about the photographs that will appear on their certificates. I had to snap several shots before they approved of one.
There’s the man born in Italy who came to live on the North Shore when he was a child. He suffers from a mental illness, but his wife is an attentive caregiver. She told me that his desire to become a citizen is motivated by fear of the anti-immigrant sentiment in the government. We helped him fill out a disability waiver in addition to the application for citizenship, to put him on the path towards citizenship.
There’s the 87-year-old woman from Jamaica who became deaf when she was only six. In a large font size, I typed the questions on the application for citizenship onto a computer screen so that she could read them. “Them used to call me mama,” she exclaimed when I asked if she had ever used an alias or nickname. She had raised six children.
And there’s the soft-spoken young man from Eritrea who has lived in the same apartment in Chelsea since he came to the United States, to seek asylum, in 2011. Within a few months of his arrival, he found a job. For the next four years, he worked two or even three jobs at a time, before he quit them all last summer and flew to Ethiopia. There, he married another Eritrean refugee, who is now expecting their first child. He came to our office, unannounced, on the day he became eligible for citizenship. He wanted to apply as soon as possible, so that his petition for green cards for his wife and child is prioritized.
The show of fortitude, goodwill, and good humor that we witness in our clients on a daily basis keeps our organization running. Project Citizenship takes an unabashedly pro-immigrant stance not as a provocative political posture or as an abstraction based on a set of lofty ideals. We are a pro-immigrant organization rooted in the real experiences and needs of the population we serve. We get to rub shoulders with an extraordinary group of residents of this country: its immigrants. The privilege of hearing from them, directly, about their rich experiences in this country (and in many others), makes my service at Project Citizenship a sincere pleasure.