Volunteers needed at ‘Citizenship Day’ clinics for Philly-area immigrants

Charles Mostoller

Local attorneys will be lending free legal support this weekend in Philly and the five-county area to immigrants applying for naturalization – which brings with it the right to vote.

“Many clients just can’t believe that they’re receiving a service without a fee,” said Jason Hernandez, a lawyer with HIAS Pennsylvania, which is leading the clinic. “Removing that barrier of cost is really life-changing. The reaction is just gratitude, and disbelief to some extent.”

The naturalization application clinic is scheduled for April 9 at the Community College of Philadelphia. Mayor Jim Kenney welcomed members of HIAS at City Hall Tuesday and other immigration legal services organizations, and urged more people to volunteer to help with the effort.

“We need between 25 and 30 more attorneys to serve all the applicants, including those on our waitlist,” said Hannah Cartwright, an attorney with the Nationalities Services Center.

Currently about 150 immigrants will be seeking free legal help with their naturalization applications on Saturday in the greater Philadelphia area. That’s five times as much as the number of applicants from the first citizenship day in 2008. Even non-attorneys can volunteer to help.

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The government charges $680 for naturalization, but the fee is waived for people receiving food stamps, public benefits, or who live at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty line

The 2016 presidential election campaign – which has been dominated by heated immigration rhetoric, mostly from Donald Trump – is creating an incentive to some immigrants to want to get the right to vote, Hernandez said.

“People are fearful,” he said. “They’re concerned about potent candidates being elected, and they’re concerned about having their voices heard and having that ability to shape the society in which they live and contribute on a daily basis.”

Judith Bernstein-Baker, executive director of HIAS, said even the high clinic turn-out is just a fraction of the number of local immigrants seeking naturalization and the right to vote.

“That pales in comparison to people who are doing it on their own. There’s going to be thousands of people trying to naturalize,” she said.

Visit HIASPennsylvania online athiaspa.org for more information.

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