Clearing a Path to Citizenship

June 6, 2024 | Josae Martin

It may have been a while since you last crammed for that U.S. history or civics exam, but for many, it’s a test they’ve been preparing for for months. Their goal of living the “American Dream” hinges on it. People migrate to the United States for various reasons: to work, study, reunite with family, or seek refuge. After all, America is the land of freedom and opportunity. However, the path to citizenship may not be as simple as some have assumed, but rather a very long and complicated process. Not to mention, it can take months, if not years, to complete.

The first step in applying for citizenship is determining eligibility. One must be at least 18 years of age, a permanent resident for at least five years, or married to and living with a US citizen, among many other requirements. Here is the challenge: Many undocumented immigrants need more resources to become legal residents. The permanent resident application fee of $3,005, along with attorney fees, makes the process costly. Additionally, the cost to apply for citizenship is $760. Language barriers also pose difficulties, and our immigration system, which is in desperate need of reform, doesn’t help to alleviate these situations. That’s why many immigrants rely heavily on nonprofit organizations like the Legal Aid Society for assistance.

Answering the Call to Help

In partnership with Poder Latin X and Barry University School of Law, the Legal Aid Society of the OCBA hosts a workshop throughout the year to provide free legal consultations from pro bono attorneys to assist with the citizenship application process. The first half of the workshop is an info-session detailing applicant requirements and the process . The latter half is a review of those applications with clients by the attorneys.

One pro bono attorney, in particular, knows how difficult the immigration process can be. Melissa Bryan is an associate attorney at HAWM Law, specializing in immigration, criminal, and family law. She highly values volunteering for the workshop because of the personal significance to her. “I do this because I understand, as an immigrant myself from Jamaica, and I want to help.” Bryan empathizes with immigrants’ numerous challenges and harnesses that empathy to drive her dedication to assisting others in similar situations. “A common issue I’ve noticed is document collection,” Bryan said. To help with this issue, the Legal Aid and Poder Latin X workshop includes a two-week break to give clients more time to gather documents. Bryan explained that in many cases, these documents are lost or located in another country that may not be safe to travel back to. Nonetheless, Bryan sees herself as a problem solver and goes above and beyond to help those in this particular situation.

Throughout the workshop, Bryan was known as the “go-to” person. Clients, staff, and even other attorneys would turn to her for questions and clarification concerning the application – a testament to her skill and knowledge. One client she assisted years ago in establishing permanent residency returned to the workshop to apply for citizenship, which was a proud moment for Bryan. Her decision to volunteer for the Legal Aid Society puts her in a position to effect the change she wants to see happen for immigrants and help transform lives. Bryan hopes that other attorneys will use the same opportunity.

What can you do?

Orange County, Florida, has a significant share of regional international migration. Our organization must continue to provide adequate legal services to Orange County, and we rely on the support of our community. Attorneys such as Melissa Bryan serve with passion and skill, and the Legal Aid Society is thrilled to have her as a volunteer. For more information about the services provided to our Orange County community or to donate, please visit www.legalaidOCBA.org.