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UU volunteers assist immigrants at a Naturalization and Citizenship Fair in Phoenix.

Citizenship fair draws hundreds of UU volunteers

By Michelle Bates Deakin

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When Daniel Stracka began to organize a service project helping people complete their paperwork for citizenship for the Justice General Assembly, he hoped to get 200 volunteers. Instead, 600 people signed up.

“We were bowled over,” Stracka said. “It was a great affirmation that people wanted to do this kind of work.”

Stracka is president of UURISE (Unitarian Universalist Refugee and Immigrant Services and Education), a nonprofit based in Vista, Calif., that provides advocacy, education, and legal services to marginalized immigrants and refugees. He helped create Saturday’s Justice General Assembly service project, the Naturalization/Citizenship Fair.

The fair took place about a mile from the convention center in the gymnasium of the ASU Preparatory Academy. About 320 people had signed up in advance to receive help at the fair in completing the complex citizenship applications. Mi Familia Vota, a nonprofit aimed at promoting citizenship, registering eligible voters, and then getting them out to vote, was another sponsor of the fair, and had helped sign up people in need of paperwork help to come to the event.

The gymnasium was divided in several sections: registration; a table for fee-waiver paperwork; a lawyer station; tables for completing citizenship applications; a quality control station, where experienced volunteers double-checked paperwork; and a check-out station, where people received study materials for their citizenship test.

Judy Flanagan, who attends the UU Congregation of Phoenix (UUCP), was volunteering at the lawyers’ table. She works as an immigration attorney, and has attended many naturalization fairs. “It’s so exciting to see all these yellow shirts,” she said, looking across the gym at the hundreds of UU volunteers in Standing in the Side of Love t-shirts.

Delmi Ortega, also a UUCP member, has volunteered with Mi Familia Vota for about five years. “It’s personal for me,” she said. “I am undocumented.” She began her application process in 1995, however, her paperwork has not been processed yet, so she remains in legal limbo and is vulnerable to deportation. Ortega, 38, has been in the United States for 22 years. She was wearing a t-shirt from the Human Rights Campaign, which supports LGBT rights and is active in promoting naturalization. “I feel like I’m in such a unique position,” Ortega said. “If I were straight, I could get married to a U.S. citizen and solve my immigration problems.”

Stracka and UURISE volunteers were providing UU volunteers from around the country with packets of information about organizations that conduct naturalization fairs in every state. After participating in the fair, Stracka said, volunteers would have a skill they could take back home with them. “There are 3 million permanent residents in the U.S. who are eligible for citizenship but have not filed,” he said.

In Arizona right now, the time from filing citizenship paperwork to swearing in is about three months. So people completing their paperwork at Saturday’s fair will likely be eligible to vote in the November presidential election.

Stracka was emotional about the outpouring of support from UU volunteers at Justice GA. “What we do here today really helps people get to the final step in a long journey,” he said. “It touches me. I’m grateful for having the opportunity to work with such great folks.”

Photograph (above) UU volunteers assist immigrants at a Naturalization and Citizenship Fair in Phoenix. (©Nancy Pierce)

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