Mr. Citizenship Now!

January 8, 2013 | CUNY Matters, The University

From its beginning 165 years ago, The City University of New York has always had a dual mission: Deliver high-quality education — and serve the citizens of the city.

Author, columnist, professor of law and director of the city’s largest immigration- aid organization, Citizenship Now!

Today, CUNY’s 6,700 full-time faculty carry on this legacy, contributing in ways that truly transform our city, benefiting the lives of millions of New Yorkers every day. Many provide critical training for the city’s diverse workforce. They teach young scientists to explore new fields like photonics, biodiversity and nanotechnology; they train municipal employees in emergency preparedness for large-scale disasters; they create programs that teach health industry professionals how to detect early incidence of oral cancer and better care for people with developmental disabilities.

In the following months, you’ll find the compelling stories of such CUNY faculty — just a few of the remarkable men and women whose service reflects the unique, historic bond between the University and its city.

After law school and an internship helping protect undocumented Mexican immigrants, San Diego native Allan Wernick headed for New York — eventually arriving at Hostos Community College, where he helped organize a Women’s and Immigrants’ Rights Center in 1990.

Little did Wernick realize that his California internship decades earlier would eventually lead to an iconic CUNY program combining free legal services, education and volunteerism that has become the most comprehensive university-based immigration service in the country.

Now a professor of law at Baruch College, Wernick is director of Citizenship Now! which includes nine centers in New York City where immigrants can go for forms, educational activities and confidential consultations with paralegals and attorneys. Over the past 10 years, the annual Citizenship Now! Call-In — co-sponsored by the New York Daily News — has answered almost 110,000 calls from New Yorkers seeking help with immigration questions. Thousands more have been helped by the NYC/CUNY Citizenship Now! Volunteer Corps, which provides free, in-person counseling on weekends. Several years ago, Wernick started the University’s unique Immigration Law Certificate Program, which offers courses for those working with immigrants or their employers and families.

Such efforts are especially significant in New York City, where 47 percent of the residents are foreign-born and 54 percent live in a household with a foreign-born member. Some 800,000 of an estimated 11.5 million undocumented immigrants nationwide live in the area.

Citizenship Now! was conceived by Jay Hershenson, Senior Vice Chancellor for University Relations and Secretary of the Board of Trustees, and was launched by Wernick in 1997 to address the need for citizenship and immigration services among the University’s foreign-born students, faculty and staff. (More than 60 percent of CUNY students are immigrants or the children of immigrants.) The University soon expanded its mission to cover New Yorkers beyond CUNY campuses.

Over 15 years, Citizenship Now! has steadily grown into the city’s largest immigration-aid organization. The 1,800-plus members of its Volunteer Corps have assisted more than 95,000 people at its seven full-time immigration centers and two part-time centers — in Spanish, Mandarin, Creole and many other languages. Citizenship Now! also collaborates with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, making University campuses available for naturalization ceremonies.

In the last five years, the organization has held more than 200 community events in partnership with local officials and organizations. In the aftermath of the 2010 Haitian earthquake, Citizenship Now! — in collaboration with the American Immigration Lawyers Association — helped more than 900 undocumented Haitians in the U.S. obtain Temporary Protected Status. The city’s Haitian community is America’s largest, with some 6,000 students of Haitian descent studying at CUNY.

The weeklong CUNY/Daily News Call-In is a high-profile campaign each spring when some 350 volunteer counselors answer thousands of phone calls from city residents with immigration-related issues. The event is frequented by a string of notable public figures that last year included Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.

Six years ago, Wernick helped create a new Immigration Law Certificate Program at the School of Professional Studies that offers graduate-level courses. “It’s where the next generation of immigration law advocates are coming from,” says Wernick, who is author of U.S. Immigration and Citizenship: Your Complete Guide and writes a weekly syndicated column about immigration issues for the Daily News.

Over 15 years, Citizenship Now! has steadily grown into the city’s largest immigration-aid organization.