My father and his relatives at Manila Ninoy Aquino International Airport leaving for the United States of America in 1974

Helping People Navigate the Immigration Jungle

Asian American communities and non-profits work together to make the immigration process a little less intimidating.

By Gisela Camba

The naturalization process — the process to become a U.S. citizen — has never been an easy one, and it has only gotten more complicated over the years. What has changed for the better, however, is the level of scope and outreach in grassroots efforts to provide resources to a group that has long been considered the invisible minority. Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC and the Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center (APALRC) have reached out to communities in the Greater Washington, D.C. area to provide services to individuals seeking naturalization through their citizen workshops.

The availability of resources and this level of outreach by Asian American organizations is a far cry from what was available when my family and I moved to the United States. We stayed in a communal family bubble with little to no contact with political or civil rights organizations and non-profit agencies. If we had questions, we asked family members and friends. If the process got too complicated, we’d scrimmage up money to have a lawyer explain the process to us. There wasn’t a sense of trust for a third party or for a community outside our nearest network.

What I saw at Seoul Presbyterian Church on June 11, 2016 was a very different reality. In a gymnasium with basketball hoops at both ends, I saw a collaboration by community leaders to create a bridge for families and individuals who might otherwise have felt distrustful to receive services from a third party. There was no feeling of intimidation in that room. The round tables were coordinated in colorful tablecloths. In the entrance, there was a table full of ribbons, food, and miscellaneous goods. The kitchen in the back was bustling with church members rushing to make delicious Korean dishes to give to the volunteers.

This environment made all the difference.

The first client I met had a bright smile on his face and seemed unfazed by the process that lay ahead: filling out the tedious and oftentimes confusing N-400 form. He was in his comfort zone, and it was apparent.

Another client I met came with his wife, and the technical requirements of the N-400 form seemed to slowly defeat them. Throughout the process, when there appeared to be a stumbling block, they seemed ready to raise the white flag. But in that room there was an entire system and network of people behind them to make sure they left having taken their first step towards naturalization.

I left that day feeling that this outreach and outpouring of services to the immigrant community was everything I wish my family had been able to access. I was glad to see that it was a reality that I can be a part of today, and one that I hope can be a reality for other communities throughout the country.

The immigration system is a confusing jungle that can make people feel lost and uncertain, but with a community of support and experts, we can help provide people with the compass they need to find their way.

Find more information about naturalization and citizenship clinics in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia.

Gisela Camba is currently a law clerk at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC. She is a rising 2L at The George Washington University Law School. She graduated from Villanova University with a B.A. in Political Science, a concentration in East Asian Studies, and a double minor in Business and Chinese.