Reviewing the importance of obtaining citizenship and the new laws and regulations affecting the process.
By Ashourina Slewo
The Chaldean Community Foundation (CCF) hosted a citizenship summit in Sterling Heights on Thursday, May 23. As the path to citizenship can sometimes be a confusing one, the CCF hosted this event and invited community leaders in an effort to share knowledge and provide some clarity and guidance regarding the process.
“Citizenship is a great way for communities to empower themselves and gain economic and social mobility, but many immigrants face barriers to citizenship, including a lack of knowledge about the process and inadequate resources,” explained Sharon Hannawa, CCF program manager.
The citizenship summit drew leaders from a variety of communities across Michigan. Here, they were offered support and guidance they need in order to provide the tools and resources needed to ensure that all communities can achieve citizenship.
Joining the Detroit New Americans Campaign (DNAC), the CCF is joining various organizations in the regional collaborative effort to foster U.S. citizenship in Michigan immigrant communities.
“The work of the Detroit New Americans Campaign is important in terms of encouraging people to apply for naturalization and to provide, or connect, people with resources they need in order to apply or to get the schooling necessary to be able to pass the test,” explained Diego Bonesatti, Legal Services Director at Michigan United. “The largest number of people have worries about the test.”
Addressing people’s concerns about the test or their ability to pass the test, citizenship classes are offered at organizations like the CCF and the National Institute. In addition, DNAC has begun to train volunteers to help teach courses.
The test is not the only component of the naturalization process, though. Individuals must not have any criminal charges on their record when applying for citizenship.
Individuals applying for citizenship must show “that they are of good moral character,” explained Bonesatti. “Usually this is the absence of trouble. For instance, you file your taxes or if you have a driver’s license, you didn’t lose it because you have 17 unpaid parking tickets.”
Good moral character is the main focus. Individuals must show they have complied with the law as best as they can.
In addition, individuals applying for citizenship must show that they have physically been in the country for more than half of the past five years. “We are constantly informing people that if you have a green card currently, or once you get a green card, in general you want to keep in the country for seven months, out of the country for five months,” explained Bonesatti.
Being outside of the U.S. for more than 180 days will lead to scrutiny when going through the naturalization process.
“Generally, if you are outside the U.S. for 180 days or more, you are subject to proving you are admissible in a way that you are not subject to if you are gone for 179 days or less,” explained Bonesatti. “That includes an inspecting officer asking if you have abandoned your residence. To avoid this, we often times say don’t go beyond five months out of the year overseas.”
According to Ruby Robinson, Managing Attorney at the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, there have not been any changes, major or otherwise since the mid-2000’s to the requirements or the process of naturalization.
“There actually have not been any statutory changes in terms of any of the eligibility requirements to become a citizen since 2005,” explained Robinson. “The requirements continue that an individual must have a legal presence in the United States, they must demonstrate good moral character, and they must demonstrate that they can read, write, and understand English if they do no qualify for an exemption.”
While the process remains the same, there have been a couple minor changes to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services’ (USCIS) policies. The first change, made just weeks prior to the summit, was in regards to the use of controlled substances.
While the use of medical marijuana is not illegal in Michigan, and several other states, using it would make an ineligible for naturalization.
“It’s not just the use of marijuana for medical purposes, even participating in the state licensing scheme in states where there is permissible use of medical marijuana or recreational marijuana,” explained Robinson.
Any involvement in the marijuana business will lead to ineligibility. AN individual is deemed ineligible even if they are not selling the marijuana itself, but are serving in positions like security or accounting for a marijuana business.
“Possession of marijuana, use of marijuana (especially during the previous five years before an applicant applies for naturalization) is going to be a no no,” said Robinson. “Being on the business side of a business that is in any way affiliated with marijuana is, for lack of better word, considered trafficking in drugs.”
The other change that has not occurred, but may occur in the near future is about the use of fee waivers. For folks who are below a certain income level, they may apply for a fee waiver. One way for applicants to prove their income is below 150 percent is through the receipt of public benefits.
USCIS is seeking to eliminate this method of applying for a fee waiver. According to Robinson, this change has not yet occurred, but may in the near future.
Robinson suggests individuals consult with their individual attorneys during the naturalization process to ensure they are eligible before applying.