As millions of Americans happily anticipated the Independence Day holiday, Carlos Rodriguesspent Saturday, July 1, waiting patiently for his turn to be interviewed at the Portuguese Cultural Association in Kearny.
Like dozens of other foreign-born compatriots, Rodrigues was there in hopeful expectation that one day, he, too, could celebrate the occasion … as an American citizen.
The PCA center at Schuyler Ave. and Hoyt St. was hosting a citizenship clinic run by We Are One New Jersey – Hudson County Center, a nonprofit that provides social and legal services to working families.
Through a translator, Rodrigues, 64, said he’s been living in the U.S. with his wife and two now-grown children (they are citizens) – for 27 years since coming from his native Portugal where he worked as a police officer.
He has been postponing applying for citizenship until now.
A Portuguese couple, Maria and Jose Luis, have spent the past 34 years in the U.S. and they, too, said they figured they could get by without going through the process but when they read in the newspaper about the clinic, they re-assessed their situation, a translator related.
And three members of the Rodriguez family, originally from Ecuador, came, also in search of citizenship. A woman who preferred not to give her full name said, through a translator, that she had brought her parents and a brother for that purpose. She said that her parents have lived in the U.S. for 18 years and her brother, 19 years, and that she was born here.
“It’s very important,” the woman said, “with all the immigration problems. They need it now.”
With all of the uncertainty now attached to U.S. immigration policy, a lot of foreign-born folks are now taking action to protect themselves.
Kearny Councilman Peter Santana, who came to the Portuguese center to volunteer, said that people “were lining up as early as 7 a.m.” to take advantage of the 9:30 a.m. clinic.
“By 10:30,” Santana said, “there were members of 33 families being processed.”
Clinic organizers – like volunteer Maria do Carmo Pereira – a veteran campaigner who has led naturalization drives since the 1980s – expected a heavy response since, according to the councilman, “more than two dozen people had called the Portuguese Association in advance but also there were additional calls made to We Are One New Jersey.”
And the clinic, operating on the second floor of the PCA building, was more than ready to receive them.
Once an applicant signed in, he or she was directed through a series of “stations” – at one table, staffers asked applicants for certain types of background information; at another, they outlined eligibility criteria for an application fee waiver or hardship petition; a third offered a final legal review of an application; and a fourth arranged for scanning and packaging an application.
And all applicants received a copy of a citizenship prep book, “Learn About the United States: Quick Civics Lessons for the Naturalization Test,” published by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS).
While applicants awaited their turn, they could listen to an English-language videotape prepared by the U.S. CIS detailing steps toward citizenship.
By the end of the afternoon, the clinic had seen 73 applicants, said Julie Bernal, executive director of We Are One – Hudson County Center. Of those, 54 had their applications completed; the rest are still in process, due to missing documents or incomplete information, she said.
Most of the applicants were Portuguese; others listed their country of origin as Central and South America, notably Mexico and Venezuela, said Bernal.
We Are One New Jersey conducted a prior clinic June 25 in Harrison which, Bernal said, drew 96 immigrants. “A lot were Portuguese,” she said, “but also many Peruvians, Cubans and Dominicans.”
Asked about the economic mix of the applicants, Bernal said: “We tend to cater mostly to those receiving benefits from the state or low-income people.”
She said the nonprofit also offers citizenship classes in Jersey City and Union City and individual simulated citizenship interview sessions to prepare applicants for the real deal.
For those applicants who achieve their goal, the nonprofit follows up “to help them register to vote, apply for a U.S. passport and, where appropriate, update their Social Security status,” Bernal said.
It also helps with green card renewals and applications for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), she added.
Seeing so many clients at the clinics was no surprise to Bernal. “A lot of [immigrants] previously were feeling secure in their day-to-day life by renewing their [U.S.] residency every 10 years,” she said, “but after the change of federal administration, there has been a resurgence of feelings of insecurity,” given that criminal arrests linked to DUI or domestic violence can now subject undocumented residents to the risk of deportation by the INS.
For that reason, Bernal said, We Are One New Jersey, refers its clients – where applicable – “to legitimate attorneys who partner with us to help assess their cases.”
Additionally, she said, the nonprofit has been conducting legal rights sessions for immigrants, in cooperation with agencies like WIC and the Urban League of Hudson County, to train them to prepare contingency plans for family members if they do face the likelihood of being deported.