JF&CS’s Legal Services department helps refugees and immigrants with legal issues they face on their journey toward citizenship in the U.S.: green card applications, representation of unaccompanied minors, relative petitions and citizenship applications. This busy department serves around 1,100 clients every year from almost 100 countries, and has about 700 cases open on any given day.
Volunteers have become vital partners in this department’s work. Early in 2016 volunteers from Rodef Shalom Congregation in Oakland, Church of the Redeemer in Squirrel Hill and East Liberty Presbyterian Church wanted to do something to help newcomers to our region. An idea was born to train these volunteers in the completion of green card applications. Then they were matched with immigrant clients, and last spring helped more than 70 people attain their permanent residency status.
Jamie Englert, supervisor of the Legal Services department at JF&CS, appreciates the value of this volunteer effort and is expanding the program to include citizenship test preparation. “The steps toward American citizenship, and the applications themselves, are necessarily specific and detailed,” she said. “These dedicated volunteers offer immigrants the time and attention it takes to understand the legal complexities and complete them successfully. So we are in the process of recruiting and training more volunteers to assist immigrants in achieving the final goal of citizenship.”
Legal immigrants in good standing who have lived here at least five years become eligible to apply for American citizenship. There is an application form, and finally, the citizenship test, which is given in English. Trained volunteers will help immigrants complete the forms, and serve as conversational English partners in preparation for the big day.
Last week a group of 30-40 potential volunteers attended a recruitment session at Rodef Shalom Congregation. After they are trained in the specifics of the citizenship application, they will be paired with immigrants who meet the requirements to begin the final leg of the citizenship journey. Most of the current applicants seeking citizenship are from Burma, Iraq Bhutan.
People volunteering for this program say this particular opportunity is exciting because they will be able to meet and spend time with local immigrants. Volunteers can engage with their “students” personally. The conversational English practice will hopefully engender genuine interaction, maybe even friendship.
Plans call for keeping both the green card application and citizenship preparation programs going as the need remains high. A grant from the Jefferson Foundation and United States Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) enables JF&CS to offer this assistance at no charge, which helps low-income immigrant families achieve their dream of becoming Americans.
“It’s been great to see the outpouring of support from the local faith-based groups to help our clients achieve their goals,” said Englert. “Having volunteers assist with these applications increases connections with our newest neighbors and builds diversity and inclusion in our community.”
Cheers to all our dedicated volunteers! JF&CS relies on volunteers in many departments. Surely there is an interesting, useful volunteer job just for you. View a list of other possible volunteer opportunities. You can make a difference in our community!