The day was hectic. More than 200 people from 29 different countries arrived, some of them coming from adverse circumstances, some of them confused by the process they had to go through to apply to become a U.S. citizen.
On September 26, those gathered at the Timilty Middle School in Roxbury represented just a small part of a population with a huge unmet need – immigrants who need assistance filling out their applications for citizenship. That’s why the BBA partnered with Project Citizenship to hold a training prior to Citizenship Day in Boston, where volunteers learned how they could help.
But for Wadner Oge, Staff Attorney with the Massachusetts Board of Bar Examiners, the focus of the day quickly shifted from processing applications to facilitating conversations. Wadner, who was born in Haiti and became a citizen in 2000, volunteered to act as a translator shortly after arriving. Of the 242 applicants for citizenship that day, 76 of them were from Haiti – the highest number from any single country. Wadner immediately recognized a need for volunteers who spoke their native language.
“As a interpreter, I had to be able to interact with the group of the people that the service (Citizenship Day) was designed for,” he said. “There was a misconception among some of them about how the process works, so I explained it to many of them in Haitian Creole. It was a very busy day and a lot of people came. I was very happy to be in a position to help.”
Wadner said he was motivated to get involved due to the high price of an attorney to assist with a citizenship application under normal circumstances. He estimated the average attorney might charge as much as $1,000, money that many immigrants can’t spare.
To Analisa Smith-Perez, a BBA member who works at the Brooke courthouse, the most moving part of her volunteer experience at Citizenship Day was watching 175 people sworn in as citizens during a naturalization ceremony at the school.
“What I really loved about the whole day was that here, you’re helping people, and then you get to see what happens at the end of the whole process if everything goes according to plan,” she said.
Analisa volunteers actively with the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition and considers herself familiar with the many obstacles those who hope to become citizens face. Events like Citizenship Day can help prevent immigrants from turning to someone for legal help who may not have a law degree and may take advantage of them, Analisa said.
“There are so many instances of fraud, especially in the immigrant community, that we need to fight against,” she said. “Sometimes these people charge an exorbitant amount of money, they don’t necessarily do a good job, and once you make a mistake on your paperwork, you get rejected. They don’t always necessarily tell you why you got rejected. It isn’t cheap, and it’s very disheartening. It can make a person just want to stop trying.”
Analisa said she would encourage anyone to get involved and volunteer with Citizenship Day and other pro bono opportunities.
“It’s important to do this type of work because it emphasizes and reaffirms why I became an attorney in the first place. I became an attorney to help people,” she said. “When you do a project like this, it reminds you so much of the human element that is always present in what we do.”