by Joe Wilhelm Jr.
About 100 people took the first steps in becoming U.S. citizens Saturday at Florida Coastal School of Law with the help of the local legal community.
“Citizenship Day” was a free workshop held at Florida Coastal to provide assistance to lawful permanent residents eligible for naturalization.
Each attendee is prescreened to make sure he or she is eligible for naturalization.
“I went through the process with my family, so I understand what they are going through,” said Vanessa Newtson, whose family immigrated to the U.S. from Nicaragua.
“Even though the naturalization process is not supposed to be complicated, some of the forms are hard to fill out and it’s great to be able to help people out this way,” she said.
Newtson is The JBA “Citizenship Day” chair and worked with the Florida Coastal Immigration Rights Clinic, American Immigration Law-yers Association and Jacksonville Area Legal Aid to offer the program.
Organizers expected to help about 100 applicants from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday, and, while the student and attorney volunteers were greatly appreciated, the event could always use more of both.
“We had to turn people away because we don’t have enough people to help them all,” said Ericka Curran, Florida Coastal Immigration Rights Clinic professor.
“With the amount of people we get, we could probably do this once or twice a month. We’ve had a great response from the legal community though, with more attorneys volunteering this year than last year.”
Curran was assisted in organizing and conducting the event by Florida Coastal Clinical Teaching Fellow Carlos Martin and student Ali Abid.
This was the second year that the “Citizenship Day” program offered assistance with filling out forms for citizenship. Both students and attorneys contributed to the applications.
Students helped applicants with the forms, served as interpreters and conducted data entry. Attorneys examined the applications to make sure they were filled out correctly and completely.
Interpreters were available, so attorneys didn’t necessarily have to be bilingual to participate.
“A lot of the people speak English or bring someone with them that speaks English,” said Newtson.
Though helpful, attorneys also didn’t need to be versed in immigration law to volunteer.
“I practice mostly in commercial law, so I am not well-versed in immigration law,” said attorney Tiffiny Safi. “Volunteering at Citizenship Day was a great experience. It was my first time and I’ll be back next year.”
Both The JBA and Jacksonville Area Legal Aid assisted in recruiting attorneys for the event. JALA Pro Bono Coordinator Kathy Para has seen it become “bigger and better each year.”
“The beauty of this is people will be able to apply for U.S. citizenship when they leave here today,” said Para. “These lawyers and law students are facilitating life-changing events for people.”