Hundreds of immigrants begin citizenship process


By Julia Crooijmans, news correspondent

Hundreds of immigrants took their first steps on the path to U.S. citizenship Sunday at an event that brought together more than 350 community volunteers, law students and pro bono attorneys to assist citizenship applicants.

The event, called Citizenship Day, was held at the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center in Roxbury and assisted more than 370 citizenship applicants. This year marked the fifth iteration of the event, which is New England’s largest annual citizenship workshop.

“My country is not really like America – you never know what can happen, so in order for me to be safe … I decided to get my citizenship as soon as possible,” said Michneider Estime, a sophomore at Wentworth Institute of Technology who is originally from Haiti. “I gotta save myself.”

For many immigrants, obstacles such as cost, language barriers and government bureaucracy deter them from applying for U.S. citizenship. Out of all eligible permanent residents, only around 10 percent apply, Serrato said. In an effort to make the process more accessible, Project Citizenship, the non-profit organization behind the event, provides high quality free legal services to immigrants who cannot access such services otherwise.

Since 2011, Project Citizenship has assisted over 23,000 Boston immigrants from 152 different countries, ranging in age from 1 to 103.

According to Veronica Serrato, Executive Director of Project Citizenship, 75 percent of the group’s clients live below the federal poverty line.

“Citizenship isn’t just for wealthy people. We really work hard to make sure that [our clients] have the high-quality representation that people with money could get,” Serrato said. “Immigrants are very vulnerable […] poor, elderly immigrants and immigrants with disabilities are even more vulnerable.”

Serrato’s motivation to join Project Citizenship stemmed from being raised by two immigrants who became naturalized citizens.

“Both of my parents are naturalized citizens; they both were born in the same town in Mexico,” Serrato said. “I really had the advantages of U.S. citizenship since birth in a way that they did not.”

Citizenship gives immigrants a slew of privileges. Among them are the right to vote, travel with a U.S. passport and the ability to petition other family members to come to the United States. Citizenship is also a protection against deportation.

For many, citizenship is no longer a luxury – it has become a necessity.

Serrato believes that today’s political climate and the increasing number of hurdles in the process of obtaining citizenship have motivated more people to apply.

“It’s gotten more expensive and it’s gotten more complicated; the application now is 20 pages and […] not that long ago it was more like eight pages,” Serrato said. “So there’s more questions and there’s more investigation.”

From 2016 to 2017 there was a 29 percent national increase in naturalization applications, according to Project Citizenship.

While the U.S. has enforced tougher immigration policies, Serrato stressed that the country needs immigrants.

“Boston would not have the robust economy or the growth if it was not for the diversity and the talents [of immigrants],” Serrato said.

Sharon Jaquez, a Boston University Law student volunteering at Citizenship Day, seconded that idea.

“[Immigrants] came here to fully experience America and I think allowing them to get that citizenship is really important for them to fully participate in our communities,” said Jaquez.

For many immigrants, obstacles such as cost, language barriers and government bureaucracy deter them from applying for U.S. citizenship. / Photo by Julia Crooijmans

Citizenship Day felt more than just a workshop that helps immigrants to acquire citizenship – it felt like a celebration.

Volunteers warmly welcomed applicants, guided and cheered them on throughout and congratulated them after completion of the process.

“They make the process so much easier – I love the process,” said Estime. “My message to them is to keep the process the same way.”

Many applicants left the building pridefully with beaming smiles.

“[Applying for citizenship] is the biggest compliment an immigrant can pay to the United States,” Serrato said. “I don’t know if everyone remembers when they first held their American passport – it’s really exciting; it’s a big deal. So being able to vote and have a passport and be able to say ‘I’m a U.S. citizen’ is a huge moment for people.”