As the Dominican Sisters ~ Grand Rapids WORD~ESL ministry grew and expanded, students expressed a desire to become citizens, so our tutors began to prepare them individually. Within a brief time, we began to form small groups of students who were eligible and wanted to study with us.
When they were ready, we would contact Liz Balck at JFON (Justice for Our Neighbors) who would check the forms and submit them to USCIS in Detroit. At that time, the cost of citizenship was $360.
Project Reach Out helped to defray the cost for our students who could not afford it these high fees. To this day, Project Reach Out still helps our Citizenship Ministry and students in this endeavor.
Since 2011 we have partnered with GRCC (Grand Rapids Community College) which at the time was also located on the west side in the old Widdecombe Building. One of our tutors taught the class, but for the past several years Sr. Joyce Ann Hertzig has done this. The classes are held twice a year – in the fall and in the spring. Today the classes are held at the M-TEC center of GRCC on Godfrey Street.
We are blessed by the assistance of MIRC lawyers (Michigan Immigration Rights Center) who help the students complete the final draft of the N-400 form. Since this service serves more students, the funds for MIRC’s service are paid for with Project Reach Out funds.
The path to citizenship is not easy. The N-400 form is twenty pages long. In addition to multiple copies of birth certificates, Green Cards, Social Security, driver’s license, marriage and divorce certificates must be presented. GRCC makes copies for the students which is a wonderful free service. Once all the papers are compiled and the N-400 is finalized, it is ready to be mailed to the Immigration Office in Chicago.
After about a month the students receive a notice to appear for fingerprinting and a biometric scan. Usually four months after this, they are given an interview date in Detroit. There are 100 questions that they are asked to learn, and most Americans probably couldn’t pass the test. They are also required to write several sentences and read a paragraph to the interviewer. If all goes well and they pass the test, they are given a date for their Oath Ceremony. Most of these ceremonies are held at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum on the third Wednesday of the month. There are usually 75 to 100 people present, representing 75 to 80 countries. It is a very moving ceremony.
Since we have been using the services of MIRC, we have been able to obtain waivers for many of our students. At present 50-80 percent of them obtain a waiver because they are at or below the poverty level based on family income.
At the beginning of the classes, Sr. Janice Mankowski goes over the N-400 line by line so students are clear about the information needed. Sr. Carmen checks all the required documents including any police reports that need to be sent in.
As of early 2019, we have surpassed the four hundred mark of new citizens who have taken our classes. If any students have children under the age of 18 years, they automatically become U.S. citizens when their parents take the oath. This is a long process for the students, but they are the lucky ones. Many of the students we worked with before were not able to apply for a Green Card because they were undocumented.
This is a very rewarding work and we hope to continue to offer this resource to immigrants. Thanks to all who help make it possible.