WELLFLEET — Burchelle Edwards, who works at the Wellfleet Shellfish Company, became a citizen in November after being a permanent resident or “green card” holder for eight years and a conditional permanent resident for four years before that.
Company owner Alex Hay said he has at least three other employees who could pursue citizenship — but that’s a long, hard road to travel. “I think if it were less burdensome and easier to navigate,” said Hay, “they would definitely be interested in it.”
Mitra Shavarini is looking for those “hopeful citizens.” She is executive director of Project Citizenship in Boston, a nonprofit organization with a multilingual staff of volunteers and pro bono attorneys who aid people through the citizenship application process. Her organization recently received a grant specifically to help aspiring citizens living on Cape Cod.
Currently, according to data from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), there are 5,221 citizenship-eligible Barnstable County residents.
The distance from Boston makes access to help harder for Cape residents, Shavarini said. Word of mouth is the primary way that clients get connected to Project Citizenship. The organization also co-hosts an annual Citizenship Day in Boston, at which more than 250 people get help filling out applications. (A date has not yet been set for this spring’s event.)
Several barriers make applying for citizenship a daunting task. The application is 20 pages long and includes questions about parental and marital history, past and present residences, trips into and out of the U.S., and children. The document is “very cumbersome,” Shavarini said — full of language and questions that cause applicants to stumble.
The filing fee for an application to naturalize is $725, which covers the basic fee as well as biometric background checks, including fingerprinting. Fee waivers are available, Shavarini said, and Project Citizenship can assist eligible applicants in pursuing them.
Fear of authority is also a significant barrier, Shavarini said. That fear can sometimes translate into getting help from the wrong people. Citizenship-eligible residents need to be wary of notario fraud, she said, a scam in which people who are not attorneys feign the qualifications to charge for legal advice to immigrants.
Language is also an issue. Applicants must pass a civics test and an English test. But according to Joan Gallagher, director of the Adult Education Center at Cape Cod Community College, there are more than 300 people on the waiting list to enroll in the English for Speakers of Other Languages program there.
Immigrants are eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship once they have been green card holders for five years. The process for obtaining and renewing a green card is not easy, either. Business owners like Hay act as sponsors for the green-card holders they employ. One of his former employees has been struggling to renew a green card for nearly two years and has been unable to work in that time, he said.
“Immigrants go through quite a process to get a green card,” Shavarini said. That’s why she thinks the citizenship process itself should be easier. “The vetting has been done,” she said. “This next stage should be sort of pro forma.”
Hay wondered whether some green-card holders are wary about becoming U.S. citizens because national politics has become so contentious.
Nathalie Ferrier remembers feeling that wariness. Ferrier, who lives in Truro and is director of the Higgins Art Gallery at Cape Cod Community College, emigrated from France to the U.S. in 1994 but did not become a citizen until 2007. Though aspects of U.S. national politics made her hesitate, it was ultimately democracy that inspired her to pursue naturalization. “I really wanted to have a voice in my community and in this nation,” she recalled. “That’s when I decided, ‘I’m doing it.’ ”
Shavarini, whose family members were given political asylum when they entered the U.S. from Iran during the Iranian Revolution, said that, while there are many nonprofits working on the status of refugees in the U.S., not many help with citizenship. “Little attention is paid to this last gate that is needed for people to finish their journey,” she said.
Besides that citizenship can yield a new sense of belonging, Shavarini said, “immigrants who naturalize actually gain earning power, they become civically engaged, and they vote.”
The majority of the people Project Citizenship helped in 2021 were essential workers. Most were also people of color, Shavarini said. To her, naturalization is an issue of social justice and democracy: “If we’re not giving these people a right to participate in our democracy, shame on us.”