Citizenship Workshops and the Power of Pro Se: Perspectives From a New Employee

October 26, 2016

If you plan on moving from Minnesota to New Mexico, prepare for some surprises. You may find yourself asking questions like “Why is everyone putting on their winter clothes in this 70 degree heat?” or “Where did all the Norwegians go?” But there are also many surprises when you go from the Canadian to the Mexican border that have nothing to do with the weather or the lack of Vikings fans. When I moved to Albuquerque in August to work at the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center (NMILC) as part of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, I knew very little about the myriad challenges and dangers facing immigrants in the US with uncertain or no legal status.

Legal assistant, volunteer, and client working together at a pro se workshop.

Legal assistant, volunteer, and client working together at a pro se workshop.

While I am still only beginning to understand how these challenges play out in the day to day life of the 23 million people in the US who are not citizens, I have had the incredible chance to join a group that is actively working to ensure more people can enjoy the benefits and security that legal immigration status can bring. This year in particular, in response to calls from activists in our community and the challenging (read: terrible) political climate for immigrants, NMILC has focused on creating more opportunities for New Mexicans to apply for citizenship. One of my favorite examples of this is our weekly walk-in clinic.

These workshops are pro se, a suave Latin legal term that means advocating on behalf of oneself. What this means for the participants is that they choose when they want to attend the workshops and how much of the process they want to work on that day. Our workshops are also held in the same building as Encuentro and El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos, two Latino advocacy and adult education organizations in downtown Albuquerque. These partnerships and the decentralized nature of the Pro Se process allows our workshops to be both community-based and client-centered, something that can often be a challenge for legal aid organizations. Because we know the high cost of the application itself can be a barrier (almost $700 for citizenship cases!), we provide assistance free of charge and help those who qualify fill out fee waivers.    

For me, seeing participants bring in their children and parents highlights the importance of citizenship. Last week while assisting a client fill out the enormous stack of papers needed for the application, I got to know her precocious three year old daughter as well. For this participant and many others, becoming a citizen is about the benefits this status can bring to their family.  

The author, right, working at registration during a pro se workshop.

The author, right, working at registration during a pro se workshop.

Becoming a citizen has many benefits: safety from deportation, increased access to public benefits, and, perhaps most notably, the right to vote in federal elections. The upcoming election will shape immigration policy in the coming years; the politicians we elect in November will be making decisions on critical issues such as DACA, border security, and how many refugees will be allowed into our country. They will also be making decisions on issues such as health care and education that affect all of us, immigrant and non-immigrant alike. However, without access to citizenship, the voices of many immigrants are left out of our political system. Over 19,800 immigrants in Bernalillo County alone are eligible for citizenship. If even a fraction of those eligible immigrants were to naturalize, it could have an impact on elections and increase the volume of their political voice.    

In an election cycle where immigration has taken center stage, we at NMILC believe it’s important to combat the voices that portray immigrants as dangerous criminals and economic burdens. We already know the incredible positive economic and social impact that immigrants have made and continue to make in New Mexico and the rest of the US. Now let’s help amplify the voice of the people who are directly impacted by immigration policy.