Helping legal immigrants through the paper maze

Erica Putnam, manager of Fulmont Community Action Agency’s Gloversville field office, takes a phone call. She is one of two Fulmont staffers who have been certified in immigration law to assist people to become naturalized citizens. (The Leader-Herald/Eric Retzlaff)

FONDA — Becoming an American citizen isn’t as easy as just walking through a door. In fact, it is far more complicated.

First, a person has to have lived here legally for five years. Then there are applications to fill out, each carrying a fee. And finally candidates have to learn American civics in order to pass an exam, including how the American governmental system works.

Fulmont Community Action Agency, headquartered here, is trying the make the process easier by helping would-be citizens to negotiate the system.

The agency has applied to the U.S. Department of Justice for accreditation to do that and has gotten two of its staffers certified in immigration law to guide people through the naturalization process. The DOJ is expected to respond to the application in about 30 days.

“There is a need to provide these services to people who can’t afford it,” said Denis Wilson, Fulmont’s executive director. “They don’t make enough money to go through the process.

“By doing this, we’re going to make the community better and make the lives of individuals better.” For instance, once naturalized, a person may have more employment opportunities, especially government jobs, he said.

Vanessa Carey, who heads the Fulmont’s Northville office, and Erica Putnam, who is in charge of the Gloversville office, were trained in immigration law by the Immigration Concerns Training Institute of the New York City-based Immigration Coalition and are required to take refreshers annually. Fulmont also has offices in Fort Plain and Amsterdam and can work with clients in any of its offices.

Once in the United States for five years, a person may progress to citizenship anywhere from a year and a half to five years, “depending how ambitious they are,” Carey said.

“Say you’re coming from a war-torn country, you’re going to be doing everything in your power to become a citizen”—a commitment of time and money, she said.

Carey and Putnam’s work is free to clients, and interpreters are provided free by the federal government.

Because all of this is new to Fulmont, Wilson said only six to eight people may be assisted in the first year and, once the agency has more experience with the program, the number may increase. “We’ll be taking baby steps at first,” he said. Fulmont has taken on the project with the encouragement of the state Department of State.

The citizenship program would be well within the human services work of Fulmont, which operates such programs as a preschool, transportation for the elderly to medical appointments, a food pantry, assistance in paying energy bills (Home Energy Assistance Program), and supplemental food for pregnant, breastfeeding and postpartum women and their children up to age 5 (Women, Infants and Children).

“We’re advocates for people—those folks who need assistance,” Wilson said.

By Patricia Older

Leave a Reply