Helping Make Citizenship a Reality
To find out, we sat down with Sage Shaw, Executive Director of Open Door Immigration Services (ODIS). She is on the front line working with clients on their path to citizenship, so we asked her to share her insights and some client stories.
Support for Clients in All Situations
Sage has worked at ODIS over the last 3 years and tells us that the reasons to pursue citizenship are as diverse as the clients she serves. “Each person who comes through our door is on a different journey,” says Sage. “Some apply as soon as they’re eligible, others apply after 20 years of living in the US.” There are two typical questions most people ask:
- ‘What is the process?’
- ‘How long does it take after you submit the application?’
However, the reasons for applying differ from person to person. Sage tells us, “For some, they want to vote. For others, it may have been a family dream. Some clients come from countries with heavy passport and visa restrictions. Having a US passport allows them to travel more freely. Some want to unite their family by sponsoring other family members to come to the US.”
Helping Clients Overcome Common Challenges
Sage says the most common concerns she hears from clients are about passing the civics exam and the English portion of the interview.
“The civics exam can be overwhelming. For example, you could be answering questions about the 13 colonies or westward expansion or presidents during certain world wars. It requires a lot of studying.
“If English isn’t your first language, the speaking, reading and writing requirement can be hard. If someone’s educational background is limited, reading and writing might also be difficult.”
Like many nonprofits, ODIS offers a free citizenship class that reviews the civic exam’s 100 possible questions and provides information on other support services clients may need.
“Finding classes that are lowcost or free and are either online or located near where clients live is critical. Spending $725 on an application is a big decision. People aren’t going to do it unless they’re prepared.”
Some Clients Need a Place to Call Home
“Sometimes this work can be heartbreaking. I’ve worked with asylees and refugees who can never return to their home country. It’s extremely sad. To have a place to call home is important. By becoming a citizen, they know they will be able to claim the US as their home.”
In 2020, Sage worked with 55 clients and their family members. She is now seeing a rise in interest and clients. In the first three months of 2021, she has already seen approximately 45 client families. She attributes the increase to two factors - the change in policies and the political administration, and the impact the COVID pandemic had on the focus of the importance of family.
“A lot of people want to petition for their parents,” says Sage. “Because of COVID, they haven’t seen them in a long time. As a US citizen, they have the opportunity to bring them here.”
Jubilation of a Naturalized Citizen: “I Came Out an American!”
Working with citizenship-seeking clients is both emotional and rewarding. When asked if there was a recent client experience that she found particularly meaningful, Sage did not hesitate. Her face lit up and she shared the following.
“He was a green card holder from an English-speaking country, already at retirement age when he came through our doors. Through a job placement opportunity, he worked part time at the National Park Service. He absolutely loved it and wanted to apply directly for a job there, but he was told that he was not a US citizen so he couldn’t hold a federal job. He came in and said, ‘Can you help me?’
“He was so excited and motivated, but he didn’t have the financial resources to afford the full application fee. We successfully filed a fee waiver for him. Things got complicated due to COVID, and it took over a year to get his interview appointment.
“I drove him to his interview in Boston,” recalls Sage. “I was so nervous for him because I didn’t know what to expect with new protocols and procedures during COVID. He answered all the questions perfectly. He did a great job. And the USCIS officer was wonderful with him.”
Finally, after months of work collecting documents, waiting on fee waiver approval, and delays in getting an interview appointment due to COVID, he finally became a citizen in April 2021. On the way home from his swearing-in ceremony, he called Sage from the car and exclaimed with joy: “I went into the ceremony and came out an American!”
Help & Advice Makes a Difference
For those with cost concerns, knowing options for financing citizenship application fees is most important.
“Citizenship is the logical next step for people who become green card holders,” says Sage. “Some people start saving immediately for when they are ready and eligible. Others borrow from family and friends. Many simply don’t have the financial means to apply.”
Clients have the option to request that USCIS waive or reduce their fee based on specific circumstances. However, Sage cautions, “It’s a request, not a guarantee.”
“If USCIS denies your request, then you have to re-submit your entire application with the appropriate fee. It’s extremely important that clients know this process, what’s involved, what happens at what point, and the consequences if the request is not approved.”
Sage encourages those applying for citizenship to work with an experienced immigration attorney or a DOJ accredited nonprofit. “There are lots of national and local organizations available to help.”
Sage reminds us that navigating the immigration process is “a really big milestone for people. They’re finally able to work, they’re finally able to get a driver’s license, they’re finally able to vote in an upcoming election. You spend so many months doing the preparation of these materials, there’s no way you cannot be excited for what this whole opportunity is going to bring for them.”
One Percent for America would like to thank Sage Shaw and ODIS for their time in sharing their valuable insights and experience making citizenship a reality.