South Floridians line up for help applying for U.S. citizenship

Venezuelan-born Romulo Barbera said he’s applying for U.S. citizenship because his family “has put down roots here” and he loves the country. His wife, Luisa Sanchez, quickly added, “And I want to vote in the federal elections.”

That’s why the couple turned up Saturday at a “mega citizen workshop” at Miami Dade College where 120 volunteers and activists helped people seeking citizenship fill out the application, which grew from 10 to 21 pages on May 4.

The Florida Immigrant Coalition (FIC) and Catholic Legal Services said they expected about 500 applicants during the four-hour session and more than 1,000 at another on June 14 at Broward College’s South Campus.

FIC Executive Director Maria Rodriguez said the two sessions are part of a drive to help the estimated 830,000 Floridians who are legal residents but not citizens to apply for citizenship because of its many benefits over residency.

Citizenship applications cost $680 compared to $450 for two-year renewals of residency cards, Rodriguez said, but citizens can vote, apply for visas for relatives living abroad and are protected from deportation.

“One DUI and you can trigger a deportation. Citizenship is the only protection,” she said, adding that the organizers of the event also wanted to try to make sure that the new citizens would be able to vote in the elections coming in November.

Like many other applicants at the workshop Saturday, Barbera, 62, an electronic engineer, and Sanchez, 48, a rehabilitation center employee, said they went because they wanted help filling out the lengthy application.

“I just want to be certain that there is no problem with my application, just to be sure,” said Ernesto Figueroa, a 44-year-old Colombian who has lived in the United States for more than 14 years and obtained his residency in 2007.

Barbera and Sanchez said they have been residents for five years, enough to apply for citizenship.

Volunteer Andoni Gonzalez, a lawyer, said the application is not much more complicated now despite the additional pages. But it still takes one to two hours to fill out the document and send it to other stations for double-checking by other volunteers.

The event offered about 120 stations for filling out the applications and double-checking them, free photocopies and passport-size photos and fliers on citizenship classes.

Organizers will send the applications to the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) and give copies to the citizenship seekers.

Jorge Acosta, a 54-year-old carpenter from Nicaragua who has been a U.S. resident for 15 years, said he went to the event more to learn about the application process because he has not been able to save the required $680.

“I have $350 put aside, but I make $300 a week, I have to send money to my mother in Managua, pay the rent and pay the food,” Acosta said. “I can save maybe $20 a week, so I did the math — four weeks for [renewing] my green card or four months to put in for citizenship.”

He walked out with a couple of fliers, saying he will just have to wait.

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