Becoming a US citizen has its challenges -- and opportunities

Diane Saunders, left, tutored Aida Avila through the Literacy Network of South Berkshire to help her prepare for the naturalization test and interview to become a U.S. citizen. Avila now has the distinction of being the first U.S. citizen to have successfully completed the goals of the Matthew and Hannah Keator Family Scholarship for New Americans program.

PITTSFIELD — Aida Avila filed her citizenship application papers in March. On July 24, she passed her citizenship test for naturalization without a hitch. In September, she'll take part in a swearing-in ceremony at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge.

Avila knows she's one of the lucky ones.

"Yes, it was really quick," she said of her naturalization. "I've talked with one of my friends, they live in Houston, and the process with her was like a year."

As national rhetoric urges those emigrating to the United States for whatever reason — to join family, to seek refuge, to start a business — to do so in a legal manner, it also is important to understand the real costs, challenges and opportunities for people that might occur along their way to becoming citizens.

Avila, in her application for citizenship, had a lot going for her.

She has been married to her husband, Sergio, a U.S. citizen, for what will be six years in October. After going through the proper channels, she became a permanent resident, and has been a green card holder for the past four years.

Upon moving to the Berkshires via Dallas about a year ago for Sergio's work, Aida has been raising their two children, ages 2 and 4, at home. During the week, she also has made time to take English classes and, in January, became one of the first recipients of the Matthew and Hannah Keator Family Scholarship for New Americans to help defray the costs and connect with a one-on-one specially trained tutor from the Literacy Network of South Berkshire to help her prepare for the naturalization test and interview.

Avila now has the distinction of being the first U.S. citizen to have successfully completed the goals of the scholarship program.

LitNet Executive Director Jennifer Vrabel says that of the cohort of six inaugural scholars, three others have interviews scheduled within the next month and two are working through the process of paperwork, literacy and studying for the U.S. history, government and civics exams. Fortunately, they have the social, educational and financial resources needed to continue the process, which, for most people, is ideal.

But the reality is that not everyone has the ideal set of resources and circumstances to become a U.S. citizen in an easy, expedited fashion.

The Pittsfield-based Berkshire Immigrant Center offers comprehensive citizenship services, including classes and translation services; consulting and immigrant attorney referrals; social and human services referrals; as well as materials and resources needed to make an adjustment in status, from green cards to visas, political asylum, work authorization and family sponsorship.

Lorena Dus, the senior caseworker for Berkshire Immigrant Center, said that in Massachusetts, applicants have been moving through the process in a similar time frame as Avila.

"In general, the process is taking about four months from the time the client mails the application until he/she is scheduled for an interview," Dus said. "That said, it could change anytime soon because there's a backlog in other applications, so we don't know when they will stop reviewing citizenship applications so quickly to start adjudicating others."

Dus said that BIC serves clients who are interviewed in Vermont, Connecticut and New York, and that the wait times for an interview easily can be up to a year.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website tracks processing times for each of its field offices and service centers based on the type of application being filed. Dus regularly refers clients to this timetable.

"This is because USCIS won't allow you to inquire on your case until you're outside their processing times. So, for example, the website is showing that for N-400 in the field office [Boston] they're taking between 4.5 to 12.5 months to schedule an interview. That means that it is not until after 12.5 months have passed that we could intervene and ask what's going on," Dus said.

Fortunately, she added, she hasn't had to make the nudge, since the process, for now, is keeping on track in the commonwealth.

In neighboring areas like Albany, N.Y., the wait time can be 10 to 18 months, while in Dallas, the wait time is 13.5 to 21 months.

Berkshire Immigrant Center Executive Director Michelle Lopez said she has heard of other cases in the U.S. for which the citizenship process can take years.

"It's very difficult, and the rules are always changing. You have to do a lot of homework to stay on top of all these things," Lopez said.

Case in point: A couple of weeks ago, USCIS Acting Director Ken Cuccinelli announced that his department is revising the current naturalization test; the previous update was made about 10 years ago. This new test will be piloted this fall, and it is estimated that it will be implemented in December 2020 or early 2021. The agency also is creating a policy to ensure that the civics test is updated every 10 years.

These changes likely will mean that, in addition to the USCIS having to update its exam and study materials, local agencies like LitNet and BIC also will have to invest in new materials and staff training to make sure they're prepared to understand and help aspiring citizens navigate the changes. Currently, BIC has only one caseworker who is accredited to work through the number of challenges and changes each individual applicant faces.

Then there are the costs of citizenship, which starts in the hundreds and easily goes into the thousands of dollars associated with preparing to enter the U.S. legally. Green card applicants are required to have a medical exam by a USCIS-approved physician and must provide vaccination records.

"Doctors are overwhelmed with clients," Lopez said.

Other associated citizenship costs could include translation services, legal services and document services to obtain and complete such items as passport photos, birth certificate copies, work history records, education transcripts and so on. Since 2017, BIC has kept its consulting fees low, at $25 for a visit. But, because of rising costs and challenges, its rates will increase to $35 in 2020.

The price alone to file an N-400 form for citizenship through naturalization is $725, which includes a biometric fee for fingerprint scanning and processing. For someone seeking citizenship as a result of a job offer, that fee leaps to $1,140.

For failing to provide all the necessary documentation or for not passing the citizenship interview, "You wait and you pay all over again," Lopez said.

Said Diane Saunders, who tutored Avila through LitNet, of the costs associated with citizenship: "I was a little disturbed at how expensive it is to go through this. It's sort of putting people behind the eight ball to begin with."

And if you're a U.S. citizen petitioning on behalf of a spouse or a relative, you're fiscally responsible to ensure that that person is financially stable, meaning living above the federally set poverty guidelines and not relying on public assistance, for up to 10 years, regardless if both are working.

Lopez said of her clients in this situation: "They're trying to not be a financial burden on their loved ones, but a lot of people have to get co-sponsored."

She has been a hyper-alert watchdog of changes in the process not only because of her clientele, but because her spouse, a citizen of Cuba, has been applying for permanent resident status this year.

She said the complex language alone that's involved in the policy changes, procedures and application forms can be an added burden, especially for someone who is learning English.

"As someone who has a master's degree, there are still things I have to look up to understand," she said.

Between the costs, the wait, the legal jargon and the emotional toll of becoming a U.S. citizen, Lopez said, "I can't imagine doing this by myself."