Yesterday, April 18, was National Citizenship Day. This yearly event is sponsored by the Minnesota/Dakotas Chapter of AILA (American Immigration Lawyer’s Association). Though there are few immigration attorneys in my home of Rochester, MN, three years ago Rochester was the first city to host Citizenship Day. The veterans of this event recounted to me the lines on that day in 2007, how they snaked out the door of the Hawthorne Education Center and down the street. Over a hundred people went through the naturalization process that day, with a steady line of people from 9:30 to 4:00.
That year was special, because in 2007 the rates for N-400 forms (the forms for Legal Permanent Residents to naturalize into Citizens) jumped from under $300 to their current price of $675. While the Citizenship Day charges a meager $20 processing fee for the immigrants to complete their forms and snap a passport photo, this hike in fees was and still is prohibitive for many individuals, so in 2007 whole families rushed to naturalize en masse.
This year about 50 immigrants came through Hawthorne Education Center. Many of them were shocked at the $675 government processing fee, but they still wanted to pursue citizenship so they could vote, or bring a loved on to the United States faster (6-8 months, rather than 8-10 years), or get a government job, or travel frequently out of the United States. (Odrcic, Davorin. “When a Lawful Permanent Resident Should Consider Naturalizing: The Benefits to U.S. Citizenship“) It was delightful to work in the Form Preparation room, where I had the unique opportunity to speak with so many immigrants from countries as diverse as Laos, Bosnia, Somalia, Sudan, Iraq, Mexico, and Colombia. They came by themselves, clutching all their forms in one hand, or they came as a family, proud to be taking this final step to full participation in American civics. Little children, themselves citizens, proudly watched their parents filling out the forms to finally be able to vote (so many were frustrated they couldn’t participate in 2008’s electoral process). Some high-school children came in to fill out the forms for their parents who were at work this Saturday. Russian, Arabic, Spanish, Somali, and Hmong were all spoken in this tiny room. It hit me that this is America, this is citizenship.
Throughout the day, I had the privilege to work alongside many volunteers, including several local attorneys such as Chris Wendt and JoMarie Morris, paralegal students from Winona State University, and nuns from Assisi Heights. It was refreshing to see such a diverse group interacting with immigrants and the complicated American immigration system. Whatever their first preconceptions, by the end of the day everyone was impressed by just how complicated the naturalization process was and how prohibitively expensive it was going to be for these families. The Assisi Sisters were amazing and uniquely equipped for legal work, simply because of their profound gift for listening. I saw several tears throughout the day as immigrants told their stories and as families realized it might be a few more years before they could become citizens. It meant so much to the immigrants and volunteers when Mayor Brede visited and made a public proclamation in support of Citizenship Day. Whereas so many immigrants are made to live in the shadows of society, how freeing and empowering it must for these individuals to finally be filling out that final form and here, with the blessing of the local mayor.
Throughout Minnesota this same process was underway all day. AILA Citizenship Day has now spread to St. Paul, Bloomington, Fargo, and St. Cloud. Though I cannot speak for the rest of the sites, in Rochester the food was amazing. Local businesses like Daube’s Bakery and Great Harvest Bread Co. baked breads and doughnuts for breakfast, while local Somali and Iraqi refugee families cooked up some delicious ethnic foods. It was an honor to have the chance to work with Mary Alessio, the head of Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement here in the Winona diocese, and I look forward to Citizenship Day next year.
A highlight of the day was speaking with Graciela, who had gained citizenship through this process last year and was now back as a volunteer translator. She was overjoyed to be a citizen, and she felt it was her duty to help others do the same. Similarly, the Sisters of Assisi were amazed by all the bureaucracy immigrants needed to undergo just to gain something we had all been granted simply through happenstance of where we were born. At the end of this Citizenship Day, everyone emerged with a greater appreciation of what it means to be a citizen.
Tags: AILA, Assisi, Assisi Heights, Assissi Heights, Bloomington, Bosnia, Chris Wendt, Colombia, Dakota, Daube's Bakery, Davorin Odrcic, fargo, Great Harvest Bread Co., Hawthorne Education Center, immigrant, immigration, iraq, JoMarie Morris, Laos, legal permanent resident, LPR, Mary Alessio, Mayor Brede, Mexico, Minnesota, N-400, National Citizenship Day, Rochester, Somalia, St. Cloud, St. Paul, Sudan, United states, Winona State University