Citizenship workshop helps pave way for new Americans


Marisol Rodriguez is ready to become an American citizen. The native Venezuelan grandmother is already a permanent resident but decided this year to take the final step at the urging of her daughter and other family members.

"It was about time, they told me," said Rodriguez, who has lived in Bluffton since 2009. She met her late husband, an American, years ago in Florida while visiting her family.

She and more than a dozen other legal permanent residents prepared to take that step at the Bluffton Public Library on Feb. 17. They were consulting with immigration attorneys and volunteers at the third annual citizenship workshop sponsored by the Lowcountry Immigration Coalition.

"The purpose of the workshop is to bring out of the shadows the people who are qualified and have green cards but have not gotten their citizenship," said Coalition co-chair George Kanuck. "This will give people the opportunity to apply and eventually vote."

It's not an easy process. Just beginning the application requires a permanent resident card - the "green card" - and lists: addresses for the past five years, all the trips made outside of the U.S. since becoming a permanent resident, employers or schools attended in the past five years, plus marriage certificates, divorce decrees and children's birth certificates.

There is also a $750 application fee which is not refunded if the application is not approved.

Once the paperwork is complete, then comes preparation for the citizenship test that requires English language skills. For Rodriguez, that means going back to school to increase her writing and reading comprehension skills, and she has already made those plans.

Despite the availability of assistance, Eric Esquivel, the other Coalition co-chair, said there are an estimated 9 million legal permanent residents in the United States who have not yet applied.

"This is an opportunity to help themselves and help the rest of their family," said Esquivel, who is also the publisher and president of La Isla magazine.

Both Kanuck and Esquivel said there are numerous reasons why many have not applied. Some permanent residents cannot make it through the screening process. Kanuck said if red flags come up, such as a criminal record, then the individual will be denied. Other reasons for not applying include the fear that living with anyone who is undocumented - even family - might put their application at risk.

Young adults who come under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals would like the opportunity to apply for citizenship. There were approximately 689,000 DACA recipients as of Sept. 5, 2017, according to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service.

Beginning on that date, the agency was only renewing DACA applications and no longer accepting new ones. DACA participants currently face a March 5 date when work permits will begin to expire at a rate of approximately 915 per day, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Those whose work permits expire could find themselves in deportation proceedings while awaiting a new permit.

Hilton Head High School and Armstrong State University graduate Kepin Lopez is one of those DACA participants. He was only six years old when he arrived from his native Honduras. His little sister was born in this country. She will be eligible for benefits Lopez cannot receive, such as college scholarships.

"I just want to stay. I am hoping for a pathway to citizenship," said Lopez, who graduated with a degree in economics and plans to apply to law school. "In the meantime, you don't want to put yourself out there and put yourself at risk for deportation."

The lack of a clear path for those in the DACA program frustrates Esquivel, who knows many of them and finds them to be among the best of the best, especially students who participate in community service programs, are stellar students and join organizations such as the JROTC unit at Bluffton High School.

"We don't have a process in our country for people who are stuck in the middle to go get fixed. Our immigration system is broken, outdated and antiquated," said Esquivel. "We need a 21st century immigration system that matches up with our true world economy and world trade such as the European Union."

For people such as Rodriguez, the time is right, and she is eager and eligible to become a citizen. For Lopez, becoming a legal permanent resident would certainly pave the way for his future education and career goals.

More than 43.7 million immigrants, or 13.5 percent of the population, lived in the United States in 2016, according to the American Community Survey, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. The Bureau of Labor Statistics for 2016 noted there were 27 million foreign-born people working in the U.S., making up 16.9 percent of the work force.

"We are great because of immigration," Esquivel said.

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.

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