(Patrick D. Rosso/Boston.com/2013)
Sitting in the Action for Boston Community Development’s Parker Hill/Fenway Neighborhood Service Center Mariela Barrows, a 33-year-old Hyde Park resident, patiently waited for her name to be called.
Although she has legally lived in this country since she was five, she has never become a citizen. That may soon change, after she met Thursday with administrators at ABCD who over the coming months will help her navigate the often tricky and expensive citizenship process.
“I’m glad I came here,” said Barrows, who was born in the Dominican Republic. “They helped explain the details and everything about the process.”
The application alone can be daunting, especially for those whose English is not the best, but for Barrows and many who have lived in this country for most their lives, the cost is what often stops them.
The fee to apply for citizenship is $680 in addition to lawyer fees, which can often cost between $2,000 to $3,000, a hefty price for low-income individuals.
In addition to the cost and the bureaucracy, there are some individuals in the community preying on immigrants, taking their money and telling them they are guaranteed citizenship.
“One of the biggest challenges is not only getting the word out about the process, but getting out the right word,” explained Dave Spitzer, an attorney and immigration coordinator for ABCD.
“A lot of these people are being taken advantage of when trying to apply and that’s what we are trying to combat,” added Spitzer.
Spitzer helps runs the organization’s "Citizenship Days," a series of open houses that connect immigrants to lawyers and administrators that can help them with the process. In addition to the sound advice provided, the majority of fees are waived for applicants, which most often are low-income Boston residents. Close to 50 were helped Thursday and the program saves an estimated $85,000 annually in filing fees, according to ABCD.
“The mission is not only to combat poverty, but give people a leg up and opportunity,” said Spitzer. “A lot of them want to vote and want better jobs: you can’t do that if you aren’t a citizen.”
At the Mission Hill-based center staff for the fourth year worked with immigrants. All of them are legal permanent residents and the staff helped prepare them for the process, from how to fill out forms to providing flash cards detailing the civic questions asked during the test component of the application.
“Many of these people have been here for many years,” explained Jessica Rosario, the operations manager of the Parker Hill facility. “They’re your neighbors and they are already part of this community, but they need to become 100-percent part of the community and you do that by becoming a citizen.”
Listing off a number of opportunities and services that citizens have, John Drew, president and CEO of ABCD, said the motivation for applicants is both economic and power based.
“In order to have power as an individual you have to be able to be competitive,” said Drew. “You have to be able to have a voice and vote and the only way you can do that is by being a citizen.”
“Being an American citizen allows them to participate,” Drew added.
Whether it be for economic reasons or just the pride of being an American, many said citizenship is a priority.
“This is where I live, this is my life. I’m not going anywhere and I don’t want to. This is my home,” said Barrows.
The "Citizenship Days" are held throughout Boston. More information about them can be found on ABCD's website.