“We are here in the name of democracy,” said AFT Executive Vice President Evelyn DeJesus. “Estamos aquí para ustedes.” We are here for you all.
Weaving together the grander idea of democracy with the often personal pathway to citizenship and voting rights for immigrants, DeJesus helped kick off Together We Rise, a series of citizenship clinics that recently expanded to Tampa, Fla., and the surrounding Hillsborough County. The clinics, organized and supported by the Florida Education Association and its locals the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association and the Hillsborough School Employees Federation, Mi Familia Vota, the National Partnership for New Americans and others, will provide information to AFT members, families and community members who have immigrated to the United States about how to become naturalized citizens—and, ultimately, create a pathway to voting, one of the most powerful tools of a healthy democracy.
DeJesus calls the citizenship clinics, which are already a staple among Texas AFT affiliates, “one of the most groundbreaking civic engagement programs in the entire American labor movement,” and one that embodies the AFT’s “freedom to thrive agenda.”
On March 30 and again on April 20, HCTA and HSEF will welcome members and their families to their offices for informational sessions, reviewing requirements for naturalization and determining whether people may be eligible. More than 100 people have already signed up to attend.
Additional sessions, with legal experts and AFT staff on hand as guides, will help with the details of actual applications and required paperwork, allowing participants to leave ready to mail in their applications.
“We all know the naturalization process is complicated and very expensive,” said DeJesus. The $725 naturalization application fee, legal fees, questionnaires and forms can be intimidating. “That’s why this program is a game changer,” she said. The AFT provides free guidance, including pro bono legal consultation.
There are more than 9 million immigrants who are eligible for naturalization across the United States. Florida alone has more than 880,000, said DeJesus, and more than 60,000 of them are in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties. Many are among the custodians, bus drivers, maintenance workers and food service staff who are members of the Hillsborough School Employees Federation, said HSEF President Iran Alicea. “I represent almost 80 percent of Hispanics who work for the school district as support personnel,” he said. “A lot of them can’t afford to even apply for citizenship.”
The kickoff event, held on the steps of HCTA’s offices in Tampa, showed how community partnerships have strengthened the movement toward citizenship and voting rights. “We are ready to help achieve the true American dream,” said Soraya Marquez, state director of Mi Familia Vota, a leader in voting rights and civic engagement for Latino people. Basma Alawee, of the National Partnership for New Americans, described NPNA’s campaign to naturalize 2 million citizens by the end of 2022. “Currently one in ten U.S. voters are naturalized citizens,” said Alawee. “Our vote is critical, and it’s growing.”
Other speakers included Javier de la Vega Vargas, from the Mexican Consulate in Orlando;
HCTA President Rob Kriete; and Florida Education Association Vice President Carole Gauronskas.
“We know with all of the things that are happening all over the world how fragile democracy can be,” said AFT Secretary-Treasurer Fedrick Ingram. “We have to strengthen that cornerstone. So we have to make sure that anybody who wants to be a citizen of this country, can be a citizen of this country.”