BURLINGTON, Wash. - Tonight in Burlington, volunteers are being trained as Citizenship Coaches to help people navigate the process of becoming United States citizens. This is the first of several "Citizenship Academies" organized by the Washington-based immigrant advocacy group, OneAmerica, part of a national coalition planning to train more than 1,000 coaches this year.
According to OneAmerica, each year fewer than 1 million of the 8 million lawful permanent immigrants living in the U.S. move forward with their naturalization process. Evan Oshan, a Mercer Island immigration attorney, says some of them pay for assistance from middlemen, who call themselves "notarios." It is a prestigious title in Latin America, but in this country they are hardly legal experts, he warns.
"A lot of times, immigrants don't understand the difference, and they fall prey. It's really heartbreaking when you see whole families affected by these unqualified people who just take advantage of them."
Many immigrants worry that if they start the citizenship process and encounter any problems, they'll risk deportation, Oshan says. He's convinced that the volunteer coaches can help them overcome those fears, as well as assist them with the paperwork.
Lummi Lin, Sammamish, plans to be one of the new Citizenship Coaches. She emigrated from China with her parents when she was 5 and is now a U.S. citizen. Lin says state legislatures and Congress do not reflect the diversity of America today, and she wants to help new citizens change that.
"Becoming a citizen is that first step to civic engagement. People in these communities of color are just not running for office; they may not even be registered to vote. All of that really begins with citizenship."
Tonight's Citizenship Academy is scheduled from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the Burlington Lutheran Church, 134 E. Victoria Ave. Other Citizenship Academies will take place on Sat., Mar. 24, in Seattle and Vancouver, and on Sun., Mar. 25, in Pasco. Their times and locations are available at www.weareoneamerica.org