The City University of New York has launched an unprecedented 17-campus drive to help thousands of its legal immigrant students become citizens.
About 47 percent of this year’s 26,000 freshmen are foreign-born students. Major changes enacted in 1996 in the federal welfare law deny some benefits to legal immigrants who are not citizens. Approximately 12 percent of immigrant students at CUNY receive some kind of public assistance for their families including food stamps, Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income for the aged or disabled. Under the new Federal welfare act, they would lose those benefits, making it difficult for the students to remain in college.
“Since almost half of our freshmen are foreign-born, including permanent residents, the changes in federal policies create a sense of urgency about becoming citizens,” said Chancellor W. Ann Reynolds.
“Citizenship Now” is an outgrowth of CUNY’s system-wide Voter Registration program, started in 1987, which urges students to register to vote when they register for class. Many immigrant students last fall expressed their regret at not being able to vote because they weren’t citizens.
The desire to vote and participate more fully in the electoral process as well as the fear of being cut from public benefits, are motivating students to become citizens. Chancellor Reynolds initiated the project in response to student concerns.
The Citizenship Now program will train five citizenship advocates–students, faculty and staff–from each campus to help immigrants proceed quickly through the application process. They will distribute packets with everything needed to apply for citizenship, and will bring someone to each campus to take photos and fingerprints. Special workshops will be held to help students complete their applications.
Professor Allan Wernick, who heads the new program, is professor of Public Administration and Paralegal Studies at Hostos Community College, and an attorney who specializes in immigration law. He has headed a center for the rights of women and immigrants at Hostos that has helped students apply for citizenship. He and Ivette Matos, a third year student at the CUNY Law School, will visit each campus to assist students.
To qualify for the Citizenship Now program a student must be a permanent resident who has lived in the United States for five years (or three if married to and living with a United States citizen), has a command of English and basic civics and is of good moral character.