Citizenship Day at Minneapolis Community and Technical College (Minneapolis College) was one of MMLA’s last in-person community workshops held before the pandemic. In late January of 2020, Legal Aid staff worked with volunteer attorneys, advocates, and law students to guide eligible immigrants through the citizenship application process with full legal support.

Abdinasir Habarwaa and his family have been lawful permanent United States residents since 2015, and they became eligible for U.S. citizenship in January. Habarwaa and his two adult sons arrived for their scheduled appointments on Citizenship Day with personal records and documentation in hand. Volunteer law students from the University of Minnesota met them at the door.

An Exciting Process

“It’s an exciting and sometimes scary process,” said law student Katie McCoy. She has worked with immigrants in other settings and plans to specialize in immigration law. “Citizenship Day was a well-organized event. It was good to help future citizens get the support they need and meet others who are doing this work.”

McCoy and volunteer lawyer Andrea Kaufman, retired Development Director for Legal Aid, worked with the Habarwaa family. The citizenship application is 20 pages of detailed questions about residence, employment, family, and medical history. Kaufman went through the application with Habarwaa question by question explaining unfamiliar legal terminology. McCoy used her phone to verify addresses of past schools and places of employment.

The application also includes complex questions about citizenship, loyalty, and political activity. Interpreters were on hand to translate and explain the concepts in greater depth to applicants who speak English as a second language.

By the end of the day, the Habarwaa family and 15 other clients had completed client intake forms, retainer agreements, G-28 forms, N-400 forms, Fee Waivers, and Reduced Fee Applications. Volunteer attorneys and paralegals handled most of the direct client support, with help from Legal Aid staff. Legal Aid immigration attorneys reviewed all forms and later filed them with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

“It’s important for our family to start the process,” said Habarwaa’s oldest son, Samir. “Here in the U.S., we have a lot of things that we never had. We never had this kind of freedom, this kind of life. As immigrants, it’s important to go through this process and become citizens. We need to get it done.”

Ongoing Support for New Americans

In March, MMLA transitioned its physical offices to primarily virtual operations and stopped in-person workshops. Even so, immigration work continues, and so does the partnership with pro bono attorneys. Habarwaa’s family and all of the others who attended Citizenship Day will have Legal Aid’s support as USCIS processes their applications, and they take the next steps.

Even with Legal Aid’s physical office closed to the public, Kaufman and other pro bono attorneys are not only following up on Citizenship Day cases, but also taking new ones. They have adapted by meeting with their clients virtually or by phone. Legal Aid’s Immigration Unit currently has 17 active volunteer attorneys. Since March, Kaufman and three other volunteers have handled more than 25 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) cases.

DACA applicants are young people who were brought to the United States as children and are now coming into adulthood. DACA does not currently provide a path to citizenship, but DACA status means these youth have access to a driver’s license, a social security card, and employment authorization so they can get a job. This opens opportunities to apply for college, start a career, and travel outside of the United States.

Gratifying Pro Bono Work

“Citizenship Day brought together a varied group of people to train volunteer lawyers, complete the application paperwork, and move the process forward,” Kaufman said. “It was a rich learning opportunity for those of us who had never worked in immigration law. With ongoing guidance, I am now able to represent young DACA applicants, many of whom have lived in the U.S. since they were babies. Without the expertise and direct support from Legal Aid’s immigration attorneys, I couldn’t do this work.”

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