Gould Immigration Clinic to offer naturalization aid

At the wake of updated immigration policies and the recission of DACA, the Gould Immigration Clinic will begin offering free programs for citizenship and naturalization assistance for members of the USC community in mid-to-late September, Provost Michael Quick first announced the program in a memo on Aug. 31.

The clinic will offer seven free citizenship orientation workshops from Sept. 19 to Sept. 23, on both the University Park Campus and the Health Sciences Campus. As of Tuesday, approximately 165 people have signed up for at least one of the workshops, said Jennifer Macias, a staff attorney at the clinic.

“We have become aware that services for permanent residents who are eligible for naturalized citizenship are underutilized in our community,” Quick said in the memo, which was also signed by Senior Vice President of Administration Todd Dickey and Senior Vice President of University Relations Thomas Sayles. “We hope to increase awareness and utilization of the citizenship naturalization process for our faculty, students, staff and their families, as well as our neighbors.”

In California alone, about 2.2 million adults are eligible to naturalize, and about a third of those are Los Angeles County residents, according to a 2016 study by the Dornsife Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration.

According to Niels Frenzen, director of the clinic, the center’s studies on naturalization helped to inform the University’s decision to provide resources for these residents within the USC community.

“USC, as a large employer in Los Angeles County, [has] a lot of staff members and there are doubtlessly thousands of [eligible-to-naturalize adults] on our staff,” Frenzen said. “It certainly includes faculty. It certainly includes students.”

In addition to aiding USC community members, the Immigration Clinic has offered free naturalization assistance for the general public since January, through funding from the California Department of Social Services and the USC Office of the Provost, according to the Gould Immigration Clinic website.

Throughout his time in office, President Donald Trump has increased deportations of undocumented immigrants living in the United States. Permanent U.S. residents are still at risk of deportation under current immigration law, despite their current status as legal non-citizens.

“The best defense against removal is being a U.S. citizen,” Frenzen said.

He added that allowing the naturalization process is an important step for eligible immigrants.

According to U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services, an individual is eligible for naturalization if they’ve been a permanent resident in the United States for five years, or three years if they are the spouse of a U.S. citizen. If they are under 18 years old, they can be eligible for naturalization if one of their parents is a U.S. citizen.

To become naturalized, individuals must complete an application, interview process and exam to ensure that they are able to read, write and speak English and have an understanding of U.S. history and government.

To aid with the process, the Immigration Clinic will offer free sessions in October and December to aid in completing and screening naturalization applications. It will also provide free individual legal assistance for those with more complex naturalization cases. USC employees can enroll in 12-week courses in English and civics to prepare for the naturalization exams and interviews for free, while students and other community members can enroll in these classes for a fee of about $50, Frenzen said.

Andrea Avila, a graduate student studying public policy, is currently going through the naturalization process with the help of the Immigration Clinic. She came to the United States when she was 12 years old, and became undocumented when she overstayed her visa. When she was 20 years old, she married a U.S. citizen and became a legal permanent resident. Now, she is looking to become a citizen through naturalization.

“The application is very invasive in terms of your life — [it asks for] any trip you ever had and any organization that you’ve been a part of, so it took me trying to remember every single little thing that I had done and just making sense of all of it,” Avila said. “It made it easier to have someone who knew about the process to help me go through everything and put it into a cohesive application.”

Having an on-campus clinic also made getting help much more convenient for Avila.

“There are other venues to do the naturalization process, but I would’ve had to go out of my way to go to those places,” Avila said. “While having it here on campus, I can just take a break after class and go to their office, or just run really quick to ask a question.”

The clinics will be staffed by USC student volunteers.

“We’re training law students and other students on campus that are interested in volunteering through our project, so they are the ones [helping] complete the naturalization forms at our clinics,” said Dulce Sanchez, program manager of the Immigration Clinic. “Immigration attorneys supervise the students and review the applications before we send them off.”

Beyond the aid it provides for naturalization, the Immigration Clinic provides free consultations and other legal assistance for all cases involving immigration — primarily through the USC Gould Student, Faculty, and Staff Immigrant Legal Advice Project.

Along with the steps already taken to aid the community with immigration issues, Quick’s memo also said that the University plans to “assume national academic leadership” regarding issues of immigration, and it will continue to find ways to provide help for immigrants in the USC community.