They came from over 50 countries and gathered together at the McAninch Center on the campus of the College of DuPage (COD) with one common goal – to be a citizen of the United States. In a solemn ceremony, some 250 new Americans took the oath of citizenship in an event co-sponsored by World Relief DuPage/Aurora (WRDA), the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and COD. United States Congressman Peter Roskam (R-IL) was also on hand to welcome the new citizens.
“Becoming a citizen gives our clients peace of mind in knowing their rights can’t be stripped away,” Catherine Norquist, WRDA’s Immigrant Legal Services Director, said. “Particularly those refugees who haven’t had citizenship in other countries now feel like they can say, ‘I’m a part of this country.’”
To become a citizen, an immigrant must be a lawful permanent resident for at least four years, nine months (or two years, nine months if married to U.S. Citizen for at least three years) and be able to speak, read and write English. Applicants must also pass a one-on-one interview with a USCIS official and demonstrate a knowledge of U.S. civics and history through a test. For many people, the journey is considerably longer, taking years or even decades.
In addition to the time required to achieve this goal, there is a significant financial investment for all new citizens. The combination of government application fees and other costs can easily reach into the thousands of dollars, but WRDA can screen citizenship applicants for eligibility of a waiver of the application fee for naturalization.
WRDA helps some 700 applicants become citizens each year. The staff of attorneys and accredited legal representatives works with church and community volunteers to offer citizenship clinics, often held in churches. At these clinics, legal staff screen for eligibility, and trained volunteers provide help filling out the USCIS application before the case is reviewed and submitted. To help prepare for the interview and civics test, WRDA education staff offer citizenship classes, and some local churches have developed citizenship tutoring centers to help immigrants prepare.
Many of WRDA’s citizenship services are funded through a federal grant administered by USCIS and, until recently a state program called the New Americans Initiative (NAI). Due to the budget impasse in Springfield, funding for NAI was eliminated on July 1. With the loss of state funding, WRDA has been forced to make some service changes. “These cuts have forced us to scale back off-site clinics in the community and tied our services to fees,” Norquist said. “We are seeking other sources of funding to maintain staff.”
Despite the challenges, seeing the dream of citizenship come true for so many people fuels WRDA’s determination to maintain a strong program for people like Ben (named changed for confidentiality), who spent over 15 years stateless. Having been stripped of his citizenship and civil rights by the government of his home country because of his ethnic group, Ben was forced into slave labor on a farm. He escaped to a neighboring country and was later resettled as a refugee. After 5 years he has now become a citizen of the U.S., and has taken his place in a long line of immigrants who have built America.