Director's Corner

Volunteer Corps


Allan Wernick December 19, 2014

Update on the New York State Dream Act

Texas provides undocumented students financial aid. So does California and a few other states. New York? Undocumented students here qualify only for private scholarships. They are not eligible for state aid. A bill making New York’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) available to most undocumented students passed the New York State Assembly this year, but failed in the Senate. With Republicans having consolidated their hold in the State Senate, some are wondering whether the New York State Dream Act has a chance in 2015. I think it does.

The Act would allow qualified undocumented students to receive the same benefits as permanent residents and U.S. citizens, up to $5,000 a year in tuition assistance. The program would be available to students who graduated from a New York State high school after having attended for at least two years and, students who have received a General Equivalency Degree (GED) certificate (passed a high school equivalency exam).

Estimates are that the New York State Dream would cost taxpayers about $25 million per year. That is not a lot of money in a $140 billion dollar budget. Last year, state Controller Thomas DiNapoli reported that “the state would likely see substantial benefits for this investment as these young people graduate from a public institution.” The City University of New York, with its more than 6500 undocumented students, endorsed granting TAP to undocumented students in its 2013 report on the program.

If Governor Cuomo keeps his promise of pushing the NYS Dream Act, it has a good chance of becoming law. One approach being discussed is including Dream Act funding in next year’s budget. This would avoid a stand-alone vote that might scare Republicans, making the Dream Act funding part of the broad budget negotiations. In any event, I am hopeful that 2015 will be the year that New York State’s undocumented students finally get the financial help they deserve.

Allan Wernick
Director
CUNY Citizenship Now!



Past Columns

November 21, 2014: Obama Announces New Deferred Action Program >>

President Obama’s announcement this past Thursday will result in relief for millions of undocumented immigrants. However, the president's plan left many without a path to legal status. So, while our task is to focus on how to best help the tens of thousands of New Yorkers who qualify under the program, we must not forget those left behind. Hopefully a broader, more generous program, is coming, if not this year then soon.

Meanwhile, CUNY Citizenship Now! is committed to help as many New Yorkers as possible qualify for deferred action. As outlined by President Obama, the program grants deferred action (freedom from fear of deportation plus employment authorization) to the parents of U.S. citizen or permanent resident children, who have been here since January 1, 2010. The child must have been born by November 20, 2014.

Also, Obama has expanded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Applicants still must have arrived in the United States prior to age 16, but the President has moved the date that the applicant must have entered by to January 1, 2010. Additionally, applicants can now receive DACA no matter their current age. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will now grant DACAmented youth three years lawful status instead of just two.

The Obama program will create challenges and opportunities for CUNY Citizenship Now! and the Citizenship Now! Volunteer Corps. We will need to learn how to best help what may be the largest number of immigrants seeking benefits in history.

In some ways, we have been preparing for this moment for years. The Volunteer Corps, led by Volunteer Coordinator Stina Rosenquist, is the largest and best-trained legal volunteer operation in the nation, and New Yorker’s know it. I’ve already received calls and emails from activists and government officials asking about our plans. They know that CUNY Citizenship Now!, with its Volunteer Corps in place, is the organization best suited to meet the coming need.

We will share details of our plans as they develop.

October 17, 2014: New York City to Introduce Municipal I.D.s >>

I’m looking forward to getting my New York City Muncipal Identification Card this coming January. New York City will begin issuing the cards at no charge in 2015, implementing a bill signed into law by Mayor de Blasio last July. The card will be available to all, no matter their immigration status. You will just need to prove who you are (details coming) and that you live in New York City.

For undocumented immigrants, the new card means an opportunity to get an official I.D. issued by a United States governmental entity. The card will allow for free admission to many museums and cultural institutions, and many banks are expected to accept them as good I.D. I expect many bars and restaurants to accept them as proof that an individual is at least age 21.

New York will become the largest American city to issue municipal cards available to undocumented immigrants. If we don’t want the card to mean that a person is here without lawful status, then let’s all get one. CUNY Citizenship Now! will be circulating application information once the rules become final.

September 19, 2014: CUNY Citizenship Now! has a New Deputy Director >>

I’m pleased to report this month that Monique Francis has accepted our offer to serve as CUNY Citizenship Now!’s new Deputy Director. Jim McGovern who has help lead our organization for the past seven years, has retired. I know you will join me in thanking Jim for all his efforts and in congratulating Monique on her new post.

Most of you know Jim, but since much of his work was behind-the-scenes, you may not appreciate the important contribution he made to Citizenship Now!. Jim has been the front-line administrator responsible for the growth of all work areas, including the Volunteer Corps. He brought calmness and clarity of thought to a sometimes chaotic operation. He will be missed.

Monique has been with CUNY Citizenship Now! for more than ten years, serving in a number of positions, most recently as Human Resource and Finance Manager. Like many of the participants we assist, Monique came to the United States to advance her education, and with the assistance of CUNY Citizenship Now! she recently became a U.S. Citizen. Over the years, she has played a key role in all of our initiatives, leading our fund-raising efforts and ensuring that we met our grant obligations. Now she will provide operational leadership for all CUNY Citizenship Now! programs, including our community events, our annual call-in and, working closely with our Volunteer Coordinator and the Volunteer Advisory Committee, she will work to improve your experience as a volunteer with CUNY Citizenship Now!

Monique’s promotion comes at a critical time for CUNY Citizenship Now! While we are all disappointed that President Obama reneged on his promise to grant legal status to undocumented immigrants before summer’s end, we remain confident that relief will come this year. Monique and I, along with the rest of CUNY Citizenship Now!’s leadership, are preparing to work with our volunteers to meet the needs of New York’s immigrants under the Obama program. Once we know the qualifying rules, you can expect access to the best materials, top notch training and well-organized service efforts to serve thousands of New Yorkers.

August 15, 2014: Kym's Farewell/Current Immigration News >>

I begin this month’s by giving a special thanks to Kym Gashi for twelve years of service with CUNY Citizenship Now! Kym started with us as a paralegal at City College. Soon after, she transferred to our administrative office to manage our community events and coordinate our annual call-in. As years passed and CUNY Citizenship Now! grew, Kym rose to the challenge and was key to our events growing in capacity and frequency. Throughout the years, Kym earned the affection of many of our volunteers and staff members. Kym has taken another position within CUNY so we expect to see her at next year’s call-in. She leaves us but her contributions remain with us. We wish her well, and we hope that you join us in thanking Kym for her contribution to CUNY Citizenship Now! and New York’s immigrant community. Click here to view some photos of Kym throughout the years at Citizenship Now! and to leave your comments!

As noted in this Washington Post article, President Obama is contemplating providing relief for undocumented immigrants. We at Citizenship Now! are hopeful that Obama will “go big” by granting deferred action to a large sector of our undocumented population. While the administration has yet to provide details, we expect that thousands of undocumented New Yorkers will qualify for temporary legal status similar to that granted to the DACA Dreamers. We are thinking about how we will meet the increased need for free legal assistance. We know that the members of the Citizenship Now! Volunteer Corps will rise to the occasion.

July 18, 2014: The Border Crisis >>

The big immigration story of the month is the border crisis.

Two factors typically drive undocumented immigration. Both are in play in the increase in young people coming to the United States. The push factor, the conditions that drive people out of their country, in this case are violence, particularly gang violence. The New York Times provides an interesting perspective.

The pull factor, the benefits in coming to the United States, is also in play as some argue the youth are coming here on the belief that new rules will allow them to stay. Here’s an article that explores this issue.

We will be following and reporting on events at the border in coming months. This may turn out to be the immigration story of 2014.

June 20, 2014: Updates and Thoughts on DACA and Immigration Reform >>

A recent article from the American Immigration Council provides valuable information on DACA renewal. Note that applicants need not resubmit proof of basic qualifications. Those qualifications include having not reached the age of 32 on June 15, 2012 and having been in the United States for at least five years on that date.

I'm pleased that the New York Times reports a poll showing that Americans support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Nevertheless, I feel that so long as the anti-immigrants seem politically strong, immigration reform is unlikely.

May 16, 2014: 2014 CUNY/Daily News Citizenship NOW! Call-in Recap >>

Last month’s CUNY/Daily News Citizenship NOW! call-in was another event where volunteers made a difference to New York’s immigrant community. Information is power. Over five days, ten hours each day, hundreds of CUNY/NYC Citizenship Now! Volunteer Corps members informed callers about how to become a U.S. citizen, whether they qualified for other immigration benefits and where to get help. We answered more than 10,000 calls bringing our total to 133,777 since our first Call-in in 2004. And this year, we were joined by the National Association of Elected and Appointed Officials as they helped by answering more than a thousand calls at their Los Angeles call center in California.

The call-in attracted a wide range of visitors including Senators Schumer and Gillibrand, Mayor de Blasio, and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. All were impressed by our volunteer’s dedication and commitment. All understand the important role that the CUNY Citizenship Now! Volunteer Corps plays in providing help to New York’s immigrants.

We are already looking forward to next year’s call-in. See you there!

April 18, 2014: Citizenship Now! Prepares for the Citywide Citizenship Application Assistance Event at John Jay >>

Spring is a busy time for Citizenship Now! and the NYC/CUNY Citizenship Corps. Following the CUNY/Daily News Call-in (April 28th to May 2nd), CUNY will lead New York’s largest single-day citizenship effort ever on May 10th at John Jay College in Manhattan. At this event, experienced lawyers, paralegals and over 150 volunteers will provide free legal assistance to help lawful permanent residents apply for United States citizenship. Most of the participants will be callers from our Citizenship NOW! Call-in, referred to this event by our volunteers during the week of the call-in. Partnering with Citizenship Now! on May 10th will be John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New Americans Campaign (NAC), National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), Legal Aid Society, Immigration Defense Project, CitizenshipWorks, New York City Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA), New York State Office for New Americans (ONA), Korean Bar Association, and Asian American Bar Association of New York.

With your help, we will help more individuals complete naturalization applications than at any event in New York City history. Join us next month by clicking here to register to volunteer at this event.

March 21, 2014: Preparation for the 2014 CUNY/Daily News Citizenship NOW! Call-in >>

By now, NYC/CUNY Citizenship Now! volunteers have received an invitation to join us at our annual CUNY/Daily News call-in. This year we will again be holding the event at Guttman Community College on 40th Street across from Bryant Park. The dates are April 28-May 2 from 9a.m.-7p.m. Our training for the call-in will be held at a new location, John Jay College on April 16. Sign up now to make sure you get a seat.

This year, with media partners Univision and ABC7, we expect a high number of calls. In the past, the volume was so high that some callers, particularly those calling on Spanish language lines, couldn’t get through. To address that concern, our newest call-in partner, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, has offered its Los Angeles phone bank during call-in week to help with answering questions from Spanish language callers. Thanks to support from our Tech partners, Cisco and Presidio, when the Spanish lines fill, Spanish line callers will have their calls forwarded to NALEO. Call answerers there will be supervised by local attorneys and Citizenship Now!’s own Tamara Bloom and Rosie Eugenio who will travel to California to help with the NALEO effort. If our collaboration with NALEO is successful this year, as I expect it will, we may be able to greatly expand our efforts next year.

February 21, 2014: CUNY Citizenship Now! holds its first fundraiser. >>

By Allan Wernick, CUNY Citizenship Now! Director

On March 25, at John Jay College, CUNY Citizenship Now! will hold its first fundraiser. It is the beginning of a plan to double our capacity within the next five years. Since its founding 17 years ago, CUNY Citizenship Now!, has helped more than 200,000 immigrants on the path to U.S. citizenship through application assistance, consultations and by providing information and referrals through the CUNY/Daily News Citizenship NOW! Call-in. While we wait for immigration reform, New York’s immigrants need us more than ever. That is why we are putting resources into strengthening the NYC/CUNY Citizenship Now! Volunteer Corps and why we will soon be upgrading our website as we prepare to hold our first fundraiser.

Under the theme of New Yorkers Helping New Yorkers, the event will celebrate the contribution of individuals who through their service or through their example, have made a difference in the lives of New York’s immigrants. This year’s honorees are:

  • Carole Berotte Joseph, President, Bronx Community College/CUNY.
  • Robert E. Juceam, Esq., Of Counsel, Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver and Jacobson LLP.
  • Lin-Manuel Miranda, Actor and Composer.
  • Fatima Shama, former Commissioner of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, currently Vice President, Strategic Development an External Affairs Maimonides Medical Center
  • Mortimer Zuckerman, Owner and Publisher, New York Daily News.
Judge Robert Katzmann, Second Circuit Court of Appeals, who has led the effort to increase representation for immigrants facing deportation, will introduce Mr. Juceam.

For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.

January 17, 2014: Advanced Immigration Law Certificate Program at the CUNY School of Professional Studies >>

Some say citizenship and immigration is the most complex area of law in the United States. Fortunately, CUNY has the country’s most advanced immigration law educational program, the Advanced Immigration Law Certificate program at the CUNY School of Professional Studies (SPS). The program focuses on teaching the practical as well as theoretical aspects of the law. Put another way, the SPS program teaches you how to help people solve their citizenship and immigration law problems. The program is geared toward paraprofessionals and community activists though many attorneys looking to expand into the immigration field find it useful as well. Without doubt, the SPS program is the best place to start your immigration law education.

The Immigration Law Certificate courses include Introduction to Immigration Law, and advanced courses in Naturalization and Citizenship, Proceedings in Immigration Court and Business Immigration Law. Courses are offered online and in-class at the CUNY Graduate Center, 34th street and Fifth Ave. If you successfully complete the introductory course and two out of the four advanced courses, you earn a New York State Immigration Law Study Certificate. You can study online or in-class in Manhattan. Because this is a graduate certificate, you’ll need at least a four-year college degree to enroll. Faculty include leading immigration law practitioners, former and current government attorneys and sitting immigration judges.

While many of the SPS program students are preparing themselves for work in private law firms, others are seeking the education necessary to qualify them to become Board of Immigration Appeals Accredited Representatives. While the BIA does not certify particular programs, the rigor of even the introductory course should suffice to convince the BIA that students have met the training requirements.

For more information, go to www.sps.cuny.edu/immlaw, write to information@sps.cuny.edu, or call (212) 652-CUNY (2869).

December 20, 2013: New York State Bar Admission Based on Foreign Legal Education >>

Under rules set by the Court of Appeals for the State of New York, some individuals with a foreign legal education qualify to take the New York State Bar Exam. If they pass, they may qualify to get the same law license as lawyers who studied in the United States. Other foreign-educated law graduates may qualify to sit for the Bar exam if they complete a Masters of Law program and receive an LL.M. degree

This week I asked Tom Shea, Citizenship Now!’s Senior Attorney, to answer a question asked by many volunteers who studied law in their home country: How do foreign attorneys get licensed to practice law in New York State?

Eligibility Requirements to Take the New York Bar Exam Based on Foreign Legal Education
Before someone, who obtained their legal education abroad, can sit for the New York State bar examination, he or she must first comply with the following requirements. The applicant:

  • Must have a law degree from an accredited law school that allows them to be admitted in a foreign country;
  • Must have completed a period of study “substantially” equivalent in duration to an American Bar Association (ABA) accredited law school and that complies with the instructional and academic calendar requirements of the New York rules; and
  • Must have completed a “program and course of law study” that is “substantially” equivalent to the legal education provided in a U.S. ABA-accredited law school. The foreign country’s jurisprudence must follow the English Common Law.
The evaluation of these foreign academic credentials is done by the Board of Law Examiners (BOLE).

Eligibility Requirements to take the New York Bar Exam based on having obtained a U.S. LL.M degree
Where a foreign law graduate’s education does not meet the “durational” requirement or is not substantively equivalent to a legal education from a U.S. ABA-accredited law school, s/he can “cure” either the “durational” deficiency or the “substantive” deficiency by obtaining a Masters of Law (LL.M) degree from an ABA-accredited law school in the United States. The LL.M degree, however, cannot “cure” both the “durational” and “substantive” deficiencies; only one or the other.

The current rules for “curing” deficiencies in the foreign legal education went into effect at the start of the 2012-2013 academic year. For people who start LL.M programs in (or after) the 2012-2013 academic year, the rules require that the applicant provide:
  • A transcript proving that s/he was awarded an LL.M degree within 24 months of matriculation into the LL.M program;
  • Proof that the LL.M program provided a minimum of 24 semester hours of credit. With limited exception, the 24 credits must all be through classroom instruction. There is a requirement of 700 minutes of classroom instruction per credit;
  • Proof that the LL.M program continued for at least 2 semesters, each semester of which was at least 13 weeks long;
  • Proof that the U.S. law school is ABA-approved;
  • Proof that all of the LL.M coursework was physically completed at the campus of the ABA-accredited law school in the United States (as opposed to any coursework done online or outside the United States or through correspondence courses or distance learning);
  • Proof of completing the required coursework during the LL.M program:
For more information about people with a Foreign Legal Education applying for admission to the New York State Bar, please visit http://www.nybarexam.org/Foreign/ForeignLegalEducation.htm.

November 15, 2013: CUNY Citizenship Now's Fee Waiver Process >>

Two years ago, CUNY Citizenship Now began offering fee waiver assistance at our community naturalization events. USCIS allows some permanent residents applying for U.S. citizenship to have the agency waive the $680 filing fee. To qualify for a fee waiver, the applicant must prove an “inability to pay” the filing fee. You have an inability to pay if you are receiving a means-tested public benefit, your household income is below 150% of the federal poverty level or a financial hardship such as recent unemployment, high medical expenses or other unexpected large expenses make it difficult for you to pay. A “means-tested” public benefit is one you qualify for because of low or no income.

Completing fee waiver applications can be time consuming. However, Citizenship Now has long understood that for many New Yorkers, the fee was keeping them from applying to naturalize, so we added a station to our community citizenship events to help applicants seeking fee waivers. With the help of our volunteers trained to provide fee waiver assistance, we have helped almost 2,000 permanent residents with fee waiver applications over the past two years at our community events alone. That represents almost 41% of all applicants served. That’s besides the hundreds helped at our immigration centers.

Inability to pay the fee should never be a reason for a permanent resident to forego applying to become a U.S. citizen. Some applicants, and some attorneys are confused about the rules. Unlike most applicants for permanent residence, a naturalization applicant need not prove that he or she can live in the United States without receiving public assistance. The law does require that naturalization applicants obligated by law to file tax returns file those returns. But permanent residents receiving public assistance may naturalize without filing tax returns.

Fee waiver assistance is an important component of Citizenship Now's services. A component that would be difficult to carry out without the help and support of our volunteers.

October 18, 2013: CUNY Citizenship Now Volunteer Training Program >>

To improve the quality of our services, to further empower our volunteers and to increase efficiency, CUNY Citizenship Now has greatly enhanced our training program. Over the past two years, we have offered Volunteer Corps members 19 trainings. We have alternated between training on the basics of citizenship application assistance and more advanced topics. Attendance at the 19 events reached 370, with 75% being active Corps members and most of the others, new recruits. Now, 87% of our volunteers have received training in application assistance. All your gained expertise will serve you well at the seven citizenship application events scheduled for November, CUNY month.

Dedicated and knowledgeable volunteers are the backbone of our events. By increasing and improving our trainings, we ensure that free, high-quality, low-cost citizenship application services are available to all New Yorkers.

Meanwhile, as USCIS prepares to issue a new N-400, we are hard at work preparing training materials and an updated Citizenship Guide. The federal government shutdown seems to be delaying issuance of the N-400. Count on Citizenship Now to keep you up-to-date on the new form and other developments.

September 20, 2013: NYCitizenship in Schools Extended >>

I am pleased to report that NYCitizenship in Schools, the program providing free naturalization assistance to the parents of New York’s school children, has been extended for another year. NYCitizenship in Schools is a partnership of the Mayor’s Office for Immigrant Affairs (MOIA), Citibank and CUNY Citizenship Now working with other agencies. The CUNY/NYC Citizenship Corps is a key component of this effort. NYCitizenship in Schools provides free immigration information, assistance and financing options to eligible parents of students in the city’s public schools who are lawful permanent residents and seeking to begin the application process to become U.S. citizens.

Last year, NYCitizenship in Schools, with help from the CUNY/NYC Citizenship Corps, assisted 1,179* permanent residents apply for U.S. citizenship at ten events. I thought it would be interesting to share some information about those who we have served, for you to have a better idea of the impact you are making in our communities.

Here are some interesting facts about these 1,179 immigrants:*

  • The majority of them are woman (754, 64%).
  • The majority are from the Dominican Republic (209) followed by Haiti (125), Jamaica (121) and Trinidad and Tobago (103).
  • Most of them live in Brooklyn (460, 39%) and Queens (352, 29.8%).
  • Most participants tell us they are employed (605, 51%), while 387 (32.8%) are unemployed. One hundred and twenty seven did not answer this question. (We probably should keep an eye on participants filling all fields in the PRFs for us to have complete information the next time around).
  • More than half of the participants (610) are in the 24-44 age bracket.
  • We help many people in need. Six hundred and thirty four (53.7%) of our participants are receiving some form of public assistance (including Medicaid and food stamps).
With the help of our dedicated volunteers, we expect to exceed that number in the coming twelve months and continue helping parents who struggle to make ends meet. Thanks for being part of this initiative. Thanks also to our other partners: the Department of Education, the Office of Financial Empowerment, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the East River Development Alliance and the Neighborhood Trust Federal Credit Union.

*As per data available as of 9/11/2013.

August 18, 2013: The Landscape for Immigration Reform as Congress Goes in Recess. >>

With Congress in recess, both sides in the immigration reform debate are actively promoting their views throughout the nation. That’s good news for immigrants. My bet is that those seeking justice for the undocumented, including leaders of most major religious denominations, will win the debate. At their side will be business leaders from the agricultural, manufacturing and high-tech industries.

Meanwhile, some immigrants’ rights advocates are arguing that President Obama should grant deferred action status to undocumented immigrants if Congress fails to pass reform legislation this year. The program would get benefits similar to those received by DACAmented youth (individuals with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals): the right to reside here temporarily, employment authorization, and the right to travel for humanitarian, business or educational reasons.

The idea is that Obama would offer deferred action to defined groups, including parents of DACAmented youth, family members of permanent residents and U.S. citizens, and needed workers. The Obama administration says that it has no plans to offer deferred action should reform legislation fail. The administration insists it can get a reform bill through Congress this year.  

I’m hopeful that we won’t need deferred action for undocumented immigrants because immigration reform will become a reality. Still, it is good that advocates are considering alternatives to federal legislation.