University YMCA assists Champaign immigrants gain citizenship

By Meghan Webber

The University’s YMCA now offers free one-on-one assistance to green card holders and undocumented immigrants who are living in Champaign County and seeking citizenship.

The program, called the New Americans Initiative, is open Mondays and Wednesdays from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. at the YMCA, 1001 S. Wright St.

“In terms of outreach efforts for those interested in U.S. citizenship, the University YMCA helps people fill out questionnaires and gather necessary documents to begin the process,” said Megan Flowers, the University YMCA’s program coordinator for the New Americans Initiative. “We pass along these documents along with the questionnaire to the Immigration Project in Bloomington, Illinois, who then opens up the person’s case to determine eligibility and to complete the application process.”

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Champaign County is home to the largest number of foreign-born residents in downstate Illinois and has more noncitizen residents than any other county in downstate Illinois other than Rock Island County. 

Flowers said Champaign County holds large Asian, Latino and Congolese immigrant populations, and these foreign-born residents create their own communities within the county.

“For example, the Congolese community, which speaks French, are active in the Stone Creek Church in Urbana and First Presbyterian Church in Champaign,” Flowers said. “Immigrant communities from Mexico and Guatemala are active in the Catholic Church, but also in several Evangelical congregations, as is the Filipino community, while immigrants from Korea and China are more closely connected to networks that can be best reached through the University of Illinois faculty, staff and students.”

But only one in four, or 26.5 percent, of foreign-born residents are naturalized citizens in Champaign County, Flowers said. Meanwhile, in the Chicago area, about 45 percent of the foreign-born residents are naturalized citizens.

“Champaign County lags behind almost all other communities in Illinois when comparing the percent of foreign-born residents who are naturalized citizens,” Flowers said.

With large numbers of noncitizen residents in the Champaign-Urbana area, the YMCA strives to create a more immigrant-friendly community, Flowers said. The YMCA works at this goal by reaching out to other immigrant organizations in the area, such as the C-U Immigration Forum, a group that works toward improving the lives of immigrants in Champaign County.

“I’m here because I’ve been involved in immigration issues pretty much all my life as a secondary immigrant here in the U.S.,” said Tom Garza, president of the C-U Immigration Forum. “It was really delightful for me to discover that other people have to deal with these kinds of things, too, and that they were actually trying to invent this place where we could all get together and talk.”

The YMCA also offers programs such as La Linea, a helpline that assists people by connecting them to resources for legal consultation, health care, deportation, housing, educational resources and translation.

“The most fulfilling part of this program is helping people start the process of becoming a U.S. citizen by giving them information about the process and clearing any doubts they may have,” said Muong Saeteurn, MSW intern at the University YMCA. “For many people, there is a lot of hesitance to apply because they either don’t know the requirements or they are concerned about other things, like cost and the tests they must take. That’s where we come in and assist people by providing them information about naturalization and referring them to local resources that can aid them with the civics tests.”

Although some workers at the YMCA are paid for assisting people under the New Americans Initiative, the YMCA also relies on volunteers to do outreach, connect people to resources, coordinate events and provide one-on-one consultation.

“Anyone can volunteer, and we are always looking for help with publicity, outreach, translation of documents into different languages, and assistance at monthly citizenship information and DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival) workshops,” Flowers said. 

The YMCA also hosts a monthly citizenship clinic for permanent residents; this month’s is today from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Oscar Romero Parish Center, 207 N. Wright Street.

Meghan can be reached at [email protected]