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Rising together

Unions help community members through citizenship process

Hillsborough citizenship clinic
This spring, the Hillsborough School Employees Federation and the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association teamed up with the American Federation of Teachers, FEA and Mi Familia Vota to present Together We Rise citizenship events such as this May 21 clinic in Tampa. This fall, citizenship events are planned for Pinellas County with the help of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association and the Pinellas Education Support Professionals Association.

For many immigrants, becoming a citizen is an integral part of their American dream. However, the application process is complicated and accompanied by fees that often prevent those interested in obtaining their citizenship from even applying.

Iran Alicea, president of the Hillsborough School Employees Federation (HSEF), said the confusion and fees associated with the process has prevented many of his members who are permanent legal residents from applying. “The majority of our bargaining unit is Hispanic, and we knew there was a big need for this. We had talked about this before: How can we get our members citizenship, so they can vote, live the American dream and have their voices heard?”

Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association (HCTA) President Rob Kriete said his union was also focused on finding a way to meet their community’s needs more directly: “The union was trying to have more of a presence in the community, listening to our community and making sure that we’re reflecting what our community needs and wants. And one of those [needs] was citizenship.”

This mission to meet their community’s needs led Alicea and Kriete to American Federation of Teachers’ (AFT) Together We Rise citizenship clinics, a successful program that has a long history in Texas but had not yet been introduced in Florida. Working with AFT Executive Vice President Evelyn DeJesus and civic engagement organizations like Mi Familia Vota and the National Partnership for New Americans, HCTA and HSEF came together to organize a series of citizenship clinics for the Tampa Bay Area.

Two informational sessions were held on March 30 and April 20 at the HCTA headquarters in preparation for the citizenship clinic, which allowed potential applicants to receive free legal guidance from certified immigration lawyers prior to filling out their applications. “In the time in between the information sessions and the clinic, [applicants] were able to call Mi Familia Vota for assistance filling out the N400 form. So, when they came to the actual clinic, that day they had everything ready to go,” said Alicea.

The citizenship clinic took place on Saturday, May 21, and members of the community flooded into HCTA headquarters. That day, those that attended the previous informational sessions were able to complete their citizenship applications and, according to Alicea, a few HSEF members were even awarded scholarships to cover the application fees. “Six of our members got that $725 scholarship [from AFT] for their application. And our union paid for an additional one. So, we did seven scholarships out of the 22 people that were ready to apply, and we did it as a drawing so that it was fair to everyone.”

Kriete said that the citizenship clinics proved invaluable to connecting their unions to the larger community. “We got intrinsic rewards from it that we haven’t had in quite a while because it’s outside of the scope of our day-to-day work… Everyone talked about how they were happy to do this for the community and for those individuals who were able to apply for their citizenship.”

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