Melanie Torres, Interim Executive Director
Irene Egan, Development Director
“This is the most patriotic thing I’ve ever done.” – Melanie Torres
Melanie Torres didn’t plan on leading Project Citizenship’s transition from entirely in-person immigration support services to entirely remote immigration support. Nor did she plan on the deluge of activity that would follow U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ (USCIS) announcement of an application fee increase from $725 to $1,170 and the elimination of fee waivers. But Torres, along with two other paid staff and a large group of volunteer lawyers, proved to be up to the unexpected challenges. We met with Melanie, Project Citizenship Interim Director, and Irene Egan, Director of Development for an in-depth discussion. The excerpts below offer a window into the ways in which Project Citizenship, aided by funds from TPC, works with immigrants hoping to become US citizens.
What excites you most about your work with Project Citizenship (PC)?
Melanie answered this question in the following way. It is the most patriotic thing I’ve ever done. And I don’t feel patriotic on a daily basis. But my clients are way more patriotic than most natural-born citizens I know, because they don’t take the rights that we have for granted. And I think that’s super inspiring.
We’ve had 808,000 clients submit applications in our history – that’s a huge milestone for us. That is a lot of people over 5.5 years. And they’re just so motivated. PC is the last step in their journeys. Once they are sworn in, this is the end; now they’re here. Now they’re stable and secure. They can simply live here and not need to worry about being sent back to a country that they may or may not have a relationship with anymore. Pre-pandemic, when people were being sworn in in-person], we would invite them back to our office for a celebration. We take photos and give them a little copy of the Constitution.
There’s never been a time in my life when I understood more the value of voting. So many people call us because they want to vote. I don’t think most people I know are making many, if any, sacrifices to go out and vote. Our clients value this country and all the things that this country gives more than anyone else I’ve ever met. They want to vote; they believe in the power of citizenship.
Who are your clients?
We are serving low resource clients primarily. About 75% of our clients apply completely free of charge. We help them obtain the necessary proof of a public benefit (which allows for application fee waivers) and we submit it for them at no charge. The fee waiver application process does not represent a disqualifying hurdle because we are there to help. All of the processes are really easy if you know exactly what you’re doing, and if you’ve done them thousands of times. But they are really, really hard and inaccessible and confusing if you’re doing it just once for yourself.
Most of our clients were not aware of the waiver. They might have had their green card for 10-12 years, and been eligible to apply for citizenship for a very long time, but they never did because they didn’t realize they could apply for free. That’s one of the primary barriers to citizenship.
We have people call who say, “I want to become a police officer. I want to serve this country because this country has given me so much.” Our clients make me feel so much more patriotic because it makes me feel like this country is actually what our clients believe it can be. Our clients are a little microcosm of what the US is supposed to be.
How do people learn about your services?
Our biggest resource is word of mouth. This alone is hugely inspiring: we’re able to talk with just one person who then talks with five other people. These “ambassadors” pass along the ease of the process and encouragement to apply. This really speaks to the fact that we have a model that works.
How does Project Citizenship help clients apply for citizenship?
We work with hundreds of volunteers, primarily lawyers. We are fortunate that our work has become a very popular pro bono opportunity. We’re typically able to recruit hundreds of volunteers from firms like Goodwin Procter; Ropes & Gray; Morgan Lewis & Brockius; and WilmerHale. Our volunteers work with one client at a time with a focus on determining how to overcome the barriers that each case has. More broadly, information is shared about the obstacles people face that can be overcome to more have access to citizenship.
How are you working with your clients during the pandemic?
We’re entirely on Zoom. It’s been a really, really challenging time for the two or three staff that we have in the office. We’ve tapped into PC former staff and alumni – anyone who is willing to pick up the phone. These folks are helping with screenings and other work that can be done by phone. We are very, very fortunate to have a very loyal group of people who, because of their willingness to help, has enabled us to continue to serve many clients.
We currently have a table outside our office so clients without access to a printer at home can come and sign documents in person, of course with social distancing and face masks.
What is Project Citizen’s relationship with TPC?
TPC has been incredibly supportive in the last year that we’ve been a grantee. We’ve learned a lot. Honestly, just going through the application and the grant process has been really informative.
We were lucky enough to be a grantee in a year where we actually got to meet most of you at the reception, which was really fun. We’ve enjoyed the whole process and find TPC to be unique when compared with a lot of other foundations.
For example, we have been working with TPC to host the event “Voting Is Voice,” which will take place on October 20. The event marks the celebration of the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage and will elevate the conversation around citizenship and what it means to be a citizen and what it means to be engaged in your community. We’re very excited for this opportunity and grateful for TPC’s help in securing the panelists and speakers. We hope you will be able to join us!