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South Florida Nonprofit Wants To Help More People Apply For Citizenship By Providing Micro Loans

Hundreds gather at a naturalization ceremony of new U.S. citizen in Virginia.

A new program by Catalyst Miami, a nonprofit social services organization, is offering people applying for citizenship zero-interest loans to cover the costs of the application process.

Recent rules by the Trump administration have made it more costly to apply for citizenship. "Sometimes it's due to money and other times it's because of fear," says Elina Santana, a local immigration attorney, when explaining the reasons why some residents will hesitate to apply for citizenship. The Citizenship Lending Circle program works with immigrants to assuage those fears and make the path to citizenship for South Floridians more affordable.

After assessing if the person is eligible to participate, the program makes a direct check of $725 to the Department of Homeland Security to pay for their citizenship application fee. Then, the applicant is required to pay back the loan in small installments with zero-interests and zero-fees. 

Santra Denis, the chief program officer for Catalyst Miami and immigration attorney Elina Santana joined Sundial to breakdown the naturalization process and explain how the Citizenship Lending Circle works. 

The following transcript was lightly edited for clarity. 

WLRN: Do you find in your experience that people come in with a lot of questions and fear?

SANTANA: Fear is the biggest thing right now. They are absolutely terrified. I always joke with my clients [to] not to stress over the whole process, that they've hired me so that I can stress for them. I ask them to relax and I say, 'until I worry, then you can worry.' I feel like I'm a therapist. Sometimes I have conversations where they watch the news or they hear something new and they call in an absolute panic. 'Does this affect me? Is it going to affect me? What's going to happen?' And a lot of them are applying for status for the first time. They're terrified to come out of the woodwork and even apply even if they qualify. So they wait years and years, sometimes due to money and other times because of fear.

Does applying for fee waivers affect the process of naturalization?

DENIS: 'Public charge' creates a lot of fear. They think it will impact their ability to be a citizen because that is in their record. These are fee waivers that come from, let's say specifically snap food stamps, you can apply and perhaps qualify for a fee waiver. Then you don't pay $725 for the citizenship application. But there is a concern now that if you are applying for these fee waivers, that that could impact your ability.

SANTANA: So under the law, whether or not you've paid the fee has no bearing on your application for citizenship. It's a non-issue. However, the fact that you're not paying a fee could open the door for the officer to ask more questions regarding your income, benefits, and thus looking for fraud. 'Did you lie on some of those applications? Did you disclose everything you were supposed to disclose and things like that?' So that's, I think, more of where our fear is as an immigration attorney.

We want to hear from you: If you have questions about the naturalization process, maybe something you’ve never been sure about, email us at sundial@wlrnnews.org.