AFT citizenship clinics change immigrant lives

May 1, International Workers’ Day, was a big day for immigrant workers in Houston seeking to become U.S. citizens: Many were able to make significant strides toward that goal at the Together We Rise Citizenship Clinic and Community Fair in Houston, sponsored by the AFT, Texas AFL-CIO, Texas AFT and Houston-area AFT locals. Attorneys from the Equal Justice Center provided pro bono help as well.

From left, Wretha Thomas, Evelyn DeJesus, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and Houston Federation of Teachers President Jackie Anderson
From left, Wretha Thomas, Evelyn DeJesus, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and Houston Federation of Teachers President Jackie Anderson.

For most people, and especially working people, the citizenship process takes months and sometimes years of tracking paperwork, consulting with attorneys and paying hefty fees—steps made even more challenging for people with limited incomes, limited access to transportation, limited English and tight schedules involving multiple jobs, family responsibilities and school. Add the $725 citizenship application fee and the citizenship test to that, and the entire prospect can seem impossible.

“We know the naturalization process is horrendous and daunting,” said AFT Executive Vice President Evelyn DeJesus, who spoke at a press conference during the event. “But we are here—presente—to help,” she continued, briefly switching to Spanish. With free legal help and support, the Together We Rise citizenship clinic program “is one of the most groundbreaking civic engagement programs in the entire labor movement,” she said.

Launched in April, the program began with a series of informational naturalization forums open to more than 297,000 eligible area residents, including many AFT members. The events, which drew 155 people seeking citizenship, helped participants determine whether they would be eligible to fill out the maze of paperwork required to apply.

Then at the May 1 clinic, qualified applicants gathered for free legal advice and were paired with volunteers from the unions and other advocacy organizations who helped them fill out the forms necessary to apply for citizenship. They left the event with their paperwork ready to be mailed. Their families and other community members attended the event too, picking up free books from an AFT/First Book giveaway and backpacks full of school supplies.

bilingual books that were distributed
The AFT and First Book distributed bilingual books during the community event.

“I can think of nothing that is a greater honor than helping one of our colleagues become fully vested in our country, fully vested in our democracy, and able to fully lift their voice,” said Texas AFT President Zeph Capo. “The struggle to be free is part of our heritage in this country, and it is our duty to reach all of our residents in this society and lift up all that we can,” said Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy.

“I want my two daughters to grow up knowing that I am participating in the electoral process of this country to ensure that they have a more just America tomorrow,” said Cesia Osorio, a third-grade teacher and a member of Northeast Houston AFT. She will doubtless vote for lawmakers who will support public schools, safe workplaces and good-paying jobs.

“This is a country of opportunity. It is a country of dreams,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas). And, with a nod to the AFT’s bus drivers, food service workers, groundskeepers and custodians—most of whom are Black, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian American or Pacific Islander—she added, “It is a country where we recognize support staff who we could not survive without if they were not doing their duty as essential workers every single day.” The clinics serve many of those members, said Wretha Thomas, president of the Houston Educational Support Personnel.

The movement toward citizenship not only affects the individual going through it—it changes the lives of their family members and community as well. “Today we do this for the children,” said Glenda Macal, president of Fort Bend AFT. “We know when their parents and their grandparents, their siblings and their friends, become citizens, they no longer have to fear. They know that they belong to this country that in their hearts they already belong to.”

“Today was amazing,” said Sylvia Tanguma, president of McAllen AFT, who volunteered to help organize and who plans to have a clinic for her Texas local. “Looking at all the people who were here—with hope that they didn’t have before—that is incredible to me.” Tanguma says that, in McAllen, many immigrants are afraid to get help with things like housing and medical expenses because they are afraid of being deported; if they are citizens, they will no longer have to worry. “We are helping the community become better informed and have better resources so that we can benefit as a community.”

Across the country, there are close to 9 million lawful permanent residents—a common immigration status—eligible for naturalization. In the Houston area alone, there are nearly 300,000. Education Austin has already helped more than 1,000 citizenship applicants; the Texas AFL-CIO has helped another 1,652 in eight cities across the state. AFT locals, including Northside AFT, San Antonio Alliance, Corpus Christi AFT, Alliance AFT (Dallas) and Socorro AFT, have hosted clinics. “Texas should just be the start,” said DeJesus. “We should have this all over the nation, in every state and every city.”

Montserrat Garibay, who started a similar series of clinics  when she was vice president of Education Austin and expanded it during her tenure as secretary-treasurer of the Texas AFL-CIO, has helped countless people through the program and on to citizenship, a life-changing journey that empowers them to vote and participate in the democratic process without fear. “It’s transformative,” she says in an AFT Voices post about the project. “Our unions are transforming the lives of our members.”

[Virginia Myers]