Dec. 5, Justice For Our Neighbors-Nebraska (JFON-NE), together with Lutheran Family Services and Centro Hispano Comunitario from Columbus, offered a Naturalization Clinic in Grand Island, Nebraska. Such clinics invite persons who have been a lawful permanent resident (commonly referred to as having their green card) for at least three to five years and are interested in applying for United States citizenship. The process to obtain lawful permanent resident (LPR) status can take several years. And current immigration laws do not give this option to many who come here to flee violence, hunger and poverty with the desire to work and provide for their families.
People came with high hopes to accomplish this next step in becoming a U.S. citizen with the help of attorneys and Board of Immigration Appeals-accredited legal service providers.
Several applications for citizenship were completed by the end of the day; however, others were informed they were unable to apply for citizenship at this time, meaning they have to wait longer or need to gather more documents. “Maria,” for example, left her consultation saddened because she learned she was not able to apply for citizenship yet because she does not have the required English language proficiency to become a U.S. citizen.
“It is so important to become a citizen so a person can fully participate in the duties and responsibilities that come with that privilege,” she shared in her native language. “Will I ever be able to become a citizen before I die?” she wondered.
Maria had come to the United States from Guatemala in 1988 and eventually became a lawful permanent resident after obtaining asylum in America. When she first arrived, she was hired by a family in California to care for their children. She received $40 per week and had to buy groceries for the family’s children from her pay. Besides caring for the children, she was responsible for the laundry and all the cleaning in the house.
In 1991, a coyote – a person who smuggles Latin Americans across the U.S. border, typically for a high fee – brought her to Nebraska to work for a meat-packing plant. After a few years, she changed jobs and worked at another company for 19 years before retiring in 2013. At the naturalization clinic, Maria, 65, found out she was not able to read, write or speak English well enough to apply for citizenship. There is a waiver to the English language requirement available for people older than 50 who have been legal permanent residents for 20 years and people older than 55 who have been legal permanent residents for 15 years. Maria has not had that status long enough to take advantage of this waiver.
Maria is not working full time any longer and has more time to learn English, but it still seems like an overwhelming task.
Maria was close to tears after talking with the attorney and learning she did not qualify for the English language waiver. She had worked hard during all these years and contributed to the communities in which she lived. Clinic volunteers encouraged Maria not to give up and provided information where she can enroll in English language classes.
Justice For Our Neighbors-Nebraska is a United Methodist ministry started by UMCOR and is one of the Great Plains’ mission agencies. JFON-NE provides legal immigration services to low-income immigrants, offers educational presentations and advocates for just immigration laws. Learn more about JFON-NE or contribute to its work.
This story was provided by Andrea Paret, peace and justice coordinator for the Great Plains Conference.