More than 600 immigrants poured into John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan on Saturday to get help applying for citizenship — and were welcomed by a small army of volunteer lawyers and interpreters eager to plow through the paperwork.
“It’s great for the city," Manhattan borough president Gale Brewer said of the Citizenship Now! event. “They are going to be the workers of the future of our city.”
Billed as the largest citizenship event in the city, the New York Daily News and CUNY again sponsored a session that provided volunteer interpreters fluent in over 40 languages, and boasted volunteers who included practicing lawyers and those versed in immigration law, according to spokeswoman Sofia Carreno. Reps from United States Citizenship and Immigration Services were also at hand to give out material to help documented immigrants prepare for their citizenship exam.
“Becoming a citizen brings with it a lot of tranquility," said Bronx resident and Dominican Republic native Francisca Baez, 57, who will celebrate six years in the U.S. next month.
“It makes you feel that you’re a really a part of this nation. It permits you to vote, take initiative and even apply for certain jobs that you wouldn’t have been able to before. It opens doors for you in every way.”
CUNY Citizenshp Now! has offices in every borough and holds regular monthly help sessions, but Saturday’s event is the biggest of the year. CUNY has been involved in the effort since 1997.
“Technology has allowed us to reach out to many people for this event," said Eddie Cuesta, head of Dominicanos USA a legal aid organization that spread the word over social media, and was responsible for about 300 immigrants filing for citizenship.
“We told them what they need to bring to be a part of this, and what it means to be able to participate in the United States and to have the right to vote and be a full citizen,” he said. "It’s been amazing in terms of the needs of the community... It is such a pride once they get their certificate.”
The biggest hurdles volunteers see for these immigrants are the massive amount of paperwork and the $725 price tag — a fee that can be wavered if an applicant is eligible.
Mayor de Blasio — a day after he dropped out of his long-shot bid to become president ? worked the room with hugs for immigrants and volunteers, taking photos with many of them, and telling applicants, "I wish you the best.” He declined to publicly comment on the event.
Brewer was outspoken, however, saying if she had one message to send to President Trump it would be simple: “This is an example of the hard working diversity that makes America and New York City great."
“He should stop the craziness in terms of what he thinks about our immigrants,” Brewer added.
CUNY Chancellor Felix Matos Rodriguez said the help session is particularly significant for an education system in which “one-third of our students come from countries outside of the U.S.,” and called school“the Ellis Island of education in this city."
“The support of the immigrants and the assets they bring is part of our DNA,” he said. “We are delighted that we can continue to break a record and continue to bring the possibility of the American Dream for many many more immigrants in this city.”
For volunteer and immigration lawyer Martine Cuomo, who was the first in her family born in the U.S. — and who’s helped her whole family apply for citizenship — the chance to help others gratifying.
“This is really personal," she said, noting she signed up young applicants as well as someone who was 76 years old. "It’s individuals coming in who aren’t really sure how to get through the system and so it’s nice to be here and help somebody who might not have ever gotten to that final point of getting a U.S. passport.”