New York State Senator Adriano Espaillat, who immigrated from the Dominican Republic in 1964, takes his turn as a Citizenship Now! volunteer.
Photos by Sandra E. García
Turning 15 constitutes a milestone for many.
And for an initiative that began as an idea shared by Jay Hershenson, Senior Vice Chancellor for University Relations for the City University of New York (CUNY) and Martin Dunn, former Editor-In-Chief of the New York Daily News, together with immigration attorney Allan Wernick, that decade and a half has meant over 100,000 residents serviced – and the establishment of a genuine New York City institution.
"This is all about the American Dream," said Vice Chancellor Hershenson early this past Mon., Apr. 23rd as he, together with CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein, a host of elected officials and hundreds of volunteers marked the 15th anniversary of CUNY's Citizenship Now! initiative.
For one week each spring, phone lines are opened from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. to take calls citywide from anyone seeking immigration information or resources. The citywide hotline provides callers advice – at no cost – on issues ranging from how to become a U.S. citizen to family petitions.
And since 1997, the program's debut year, the overall capacity has more than doubled.
In 2011, close to 400 volunteers assisted 12,526 callers in 48 different languages; this year, over 400 volunteers will participate and engage in callers over 50 languages.
"We are helping to transform people's lives in positive ways," said Vice Chancellor Hershenson. "We have made it abundantly clear that a great urban university [and] media can come together with volunteers and help people navigate this horrible maze of laws that can be very intimidating to people who want to achieve the American Dream."
Headquartered at CUNY's New Community College near Bryant Park, CUNY's Citizenship Now! will handle its 100,000th call this year.
Many of the leaders present reflected on how immigration was part of their own personal narratives.
Henry Lajara volunteers, "because there is such a need for this help especially (for) people of color and people in low income areas."
"I am delighted to work with CUNY on all these projects," said New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. "It touches my heart because my father immigrated to this country from Russia. He learned to speak English in one of the night schools. He worked hard, opened a business and he provided the American opportunities for me and my brother."
For others, the experience was even a more immediate one.
"When I became a citizen, this initiative wasn't available. But this is a great opportunity to get all these volunteers working with 100,000 people that want to become U.S. citizens," said State Senator Adriano Espaillat, who came to the United States from the Dominican Republic in 1964. "This is for people to feel like they are a real part of the city, of the nation."
U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who has been a vocal supporter of the DREAM Act, also praised the services offered.
Some of the over 400 Citizenship Now! volunteers await launch of the call-in service in which they speak with callers on immigration issues
"CUNY's Citizenship Now! means so much for New York City residents. They are helping thousands to file the paperwork and start the (naturalization) process," said Sen. Gillibrand. "The outreach to many diverse communities is real and significant."
Volunteers hailed from all over the city.
Henry Lajara, of Soundview section of the Bronx, works with Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, and speaks to callers in Spanish or English.
"We can answer any type of immigration question posed, in any language," said Lajara. "Helping other people trying to reach their dreams of becoming a citizen is very fulfilling, because there is such a need for this help, especially (for) people of color and people in low income areas. They don't know enough about the services that are out there for them."
U.S. Senator Charles B. Schumer pledged his renewed commitment to immigration reform.
"Immigration is the heart and soul of New York, since the Dutch," said Sen. Schumer. "I am working on comprehensive immigration reform. We need to keep at it until we get it done. We have to keep this going strong; the rest of America can learn from New York."
Easily half of the calls taken, say organizers, are for Spanish language speakers. Most of the volunteers are immigration attorneys, paralegals, and advocates.
"I have been involved in immigration law since 2006," explained CUNY Express Staff Lawyer Andres Lemons, who is of Mexican-American descent and lives in Harlem. "I like to give back to the community, and I also think that resolving immigration issues is of upmost importance."
By any measure, New York City Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez has experienced his version of the American Dream. As a CUNY school graduate, he took full advantage of what the "Harvard of the poor," as the university system is often called, had to offer him and his family.
"As someone that is one born in another country," said Councilmember Rodriguez, "for me, this program, [which] gives people the opportunity to become U.S. citizens, is another way to say, 'We are helping you make your dream come true.'"
Panamanian-born Emma Dwyer held her voter registration card close the entire morning. Dwyer, who only recently became a U.S. citizen, credits the Citizenship Now! initiative for assisting her.
And she is seeking to do the same for others, as a volunteer.
"After Citizenship Now! gave me the tools and opportunity to become a U.S. citizen, the right thing to do is give back," said Dwyer with a wide smile. "Citizenship means a lot to me, because in this presidential election, my name will finally count. This has changed my entire life."
Citizenship Now! call-in lines are now open for assistance regarding citizenship and other immigration related issues.
Call the following numbers from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. until Friday, April 27th.