To be a Citizen you feel free
March 24, 2011 | Chicago, IL
By Megan Granados and Francisco Martinez
Every year, Erie Neighborhood House’s Citizenship and Immigration program assists with over 500 applications for citizenship and registers more than 200 people in their citizenship classes. One of these participants is Silvia Ramirez, a single mother of five, who has been struggling with the self-identity of being a legal resident for almost 20 years. This is her story.
Silvia Ramirez, applied for citizenship through the Dream Fund, a program sponsored by the New American’s Initiative in which permanent residents who cannot otherwise afford to apply for citizenship have the financial resources to do so. The Program paid for $535 of the filing fees, allowing applicants to pay only $140 for their naturalization application. Erie House filed 120 applications under this program during the month of September. With this added resource Silvia began attending citizenship classes with Erie House. Since then Silvia has taken and passed her citizenship exam and is now waiting to take her oath ceremony to swear in as a United States citizen.
Knowing that Illinois was planning on cutting funding to immigrant service programs, such as citizenship, Silvia joined two buses of community members from Erie House that traveled to Springfield to meet with legislative representatives. “I tell people, imagine what would happen if we came to class one day and the door is shut. There is a big yellow sign that [reads] “closed” and there is no more help. We would have to find our own lawyer to ‘help’. It is too hard to trust someone and we would have to go out of our communities to their offices. They are not there for you like Erie House is; it is about whoever brings more money first. They don’t care about you. Maria and Jesus [Erie’s Citizenship Instruction Services Specialists and Citizenship teacher, respectively] are always happy to help. If we have a question they will answer your calls,” Silvia narrates. Silvia continuously express that such personalized services helped her know that her decision was correct and felt secure. Her feelings are synonymous with the immigration cause, without such programs, she may have never felt comfortable applying for citizenship.
“10 years ago--I applied for citizenship. Back then there were not many programs. We had to pay a lawyer,” Silvia explained. “Unfortunately, that lawyer did not explain to me what I would need to do for the exam and I did not pass the test”. Silvia was afraid to apply again and it took her until she saw an ad for Erie House’s citizenship classes to muster up the confidence to re-apply.
“I saw an ad for the classes for Erie House. I went there and it was easy; there was no reason to be afraid. There was no cost for the program and they have the right times for the classes and to fill out your papers. They are even available to answer questions," she remembers. Silvia mentioned that she was comfortable enough to explain her entire case without worry. She felt at ease and knew that the information that she was getting was accurate. She went on, “They are happy to answer your calls. Not only for you, but we can ask questions about the family. It helps the whole family.”
As for the Dream Fund, Silvia said it made all the difference. “I am a single mother [of five] who was not working at the time. It was too hard for me to pay the whole $675. If it wasn’t for the Dream Fund I would have waited to apply for citizenship; I would have just renewed my green card”.
She started classes in the fall and quickly made an impression in class. “Silvia has really been a leader in class. She works hard and always encourages the others in the class to participate,” says Jesus Rodriguez, her citizenship class teacher. In fact, Silvia did more than that, when she went to her interview, an elderly woman in the waiting room needed an interpreter. Silvia decided to help the woman and interpreted. The woman passed her exam. Silvia was overcome with excitement, “it was a good feeling accompanying others on their journey towards citizenship!” She returned to school and announced that she would be happy to help interpret for anyone who needs it. She now helps others prepare for the interview and serves as an interpreter at immigration. “Even when I am not at home, I keep studying so that I can better help people.”
On becoming a citizen, Silvia says, “To be a citizen you feel free. There is not something that you have to renew all of the time. Now you have rights for everything, to vote, better social security—[the country] will help you because they know you will be here. I love the United States.”