From President Obama's executive actions, to sanctuary cities, to the campaign trail for the 2016 presidential election, undocumented immigrants and immigration reform are a hot topic. Illegal immigration stories fill the media daily and abound around the water cooler. While this remains an important subject that requires prompt attention, undocumented immigrants are not the only group of immigrants that need assistance with a challenging system.
Lawful permanent residents (LPR) and their access to naturalization is another immigration issue in the United States. An LPR, as defined by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), is "any person not a citizen of the United States who is residing in the U.S. under legally recognized and lawfully recorded permanent residence as an immigrant." After five years, or three if married to a U.S. citizen, individuals 18 years or older with basic English skills and a clean criminal record can apply to become U.S. citizens. But not every LPR is aware or able to take part in the naturalization process.
While the Migration Policy Institute estimates Philadelphia's undocumented immigrant population at 36,000 individuals, the National Partnership for New Americans pegs the number of LPRs in Philadelphia eligible for naturalization who have not applied yet at approximately 50,000 individuals. This large number is a result of many factors. The application process is cumbersome and confusing. Many immigrants do not have access to culturally competent, conveniently located and affordable immigration legal services. For others, barriers include the required level of English language proficiency and the steep application fee of $680 required to be paid to USCIS at the time of application submission.
To help LPRs in Philadelphia overcome these obstacles to citizenship, the Mayor's Office of Immigrant and Multicultural Affairs (MOIMA) and the Philadelphia chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) launched the Step Up to Citizenship campaign this past March. The Philadelphia project is part of an annual nationwide event, Pro Bono Citizenship Day, developed by AILA to encourage pro bono representation of naturalization applicants. This year's events, scheduled for Saturday at the Community College of Philadelphia and at St. Rocco's Center in Avondale, accompany the annual observance of Constitution Day, today. Constitution Day became a national observance in 2004, at which time Sen. Robert Byrd, D-West Virginia, sponsor of the measure, said: "Our ideals of freedom, set forth and realized in our Constitution, are our greatest export to the world."
Duane Morris and HIAS Pennsylvania are coordinating partners of the campaign. Other participating groups include the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, the Hispanic Bar Association, Esperanza Immigration Legal Services, Nationalities Service Center, Boat People SOS of Delaware Valley, Congresso, the Free Library of Philadelphia, the New World Association, District 1199C Training & Upgrading Fund, and the North 5th Street Revitalization Project.
Since March, Step Up to Citizenship has been hosting free information sessions across the region at churches, community centers and Free Library branches. During the sessions, participants have been provided with information on the naturalization process, as well as eligibility and English proficiency screenings. During the sessions, they have also been provided with information on the availability of waivers of the $680 application fee for the naturalization application. If participants are eligible and ready to prepare their applications, they have been scheduled to participate in the Saturday event.
At this event, set from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., pro bono lawyers, volunteer law students, translators, social workers and others will come together to provide application review sessions for LPRs who have completed their naturalization applications (N-400), but who would like to have a final review by a qualified attorney. Those needing more assistance will be provided with a pro bono attorney to prepare the application and represent them during the entire naturalization process.
Many benefits are available to LPRs who naturalize, including the right to vote in U.S. elections, the ability to hold an elected office and the opportunity to become eligible for most jobs with government agencies. LPRs who naturalize also have more freedom to travel abroad. Citizenship also makes it easier for immigrants to reunite their families in this country, as they are able to sponsor more categories of relatives for green card status more quickly than LPRs.
"Economically, citizenship is a sound bet not only for the immigrant but for their new home, as well," said Jennifer Rodriguez, executive director of MOIMA. "Their increased earnings translate into better standards of living for them and their families, as well as beneficial economic ripple effects for the entire city."
A recent report, "The Economic Benefits of Naturalization for Immigrants and the Economy" by Manuel Pastor and Justin Scoggins, estimates an 8 percent to 11 percent increase in earnings after LPRs naturalize. If the 8.5 million LPRs in the United States who are eligible to naturalize did so, their earnings over the next decade would rise somewhere between $21 billion and $45 billion, according to the study. The additional earnings and estimated spending that they would generate would lead to an increase in U.S. gross domestic product of somewhere between $37 billion and $52 billion. Citizenship also forges deeper community ties and a stronger connection to the individual's new country.
Pro Bono Citizenship Day has been celebrated in Philadelphia for the last eight years, and through the program, volunteer lawyers and community members have helped hundreds of LPRs to become U.S. citizens. Successful applicants have included LPRs from dozens of countries, including Albania, Brazil, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Honduras, Iraq, Liberia, Mexico, Ukraine and Vietnam. Similarly, participants have represented a broad sector of the local job market, including LPNs, home health aides, truck drivers, restaurant and hotel workers, taxi drivers, college students and their family members, many of whom were hit hard financially after the 2008 recession.
This year's event is expected to draw 100 eligible applicants and many more volunteers. This campaign will provide pro bono help to LPRs in Philadelphia in fulfilling their dream of becoming American citizens. Doing this meaningful work reminds us that American citizenship is good not only for the citizen, but also for their family members, communities, cities and the nation at large.
Judith Bernstein-Baker is executive director of HIAS Pennsylvania. Prior to that, she ran the public service program at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and was named honorary fellow of Penn Law in 1998. In 2004, Bernstein-Baker received the Mary Philbrook Public Interest Award from Rutgers School of Law-Camden. Bernstein-Baker teaches immigration law at Philadelphia Community College and is an active member of the Philadelphia chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, serving as pro bono liaison.
This article originally appeared in The Legal Intelligencer and is republished here with permission from law.com.