With Help from Volunteer Attorneys, Immigrants Take a Path to Citizenship

Aug 31, 2017

The Immigration Resource Center in Falmouth works out of a building in Town Hall Square.
Credit Patrick Flanary

In a political climate where federal immigration policy calls for tougher vetting and a wall on the border with Mexico, many immigrants who live on the Cape and Islands fear pursuing a path to citizenship. The Hyannis-based Immigration Resource Center is trying to help.  

A service of the non-profit Community Action Committee of Cape Cod and the Islands, the center’s volunteer attorneys work with foreign-born Cape residents seeking to become citizens. Earlier this year, the Center opened an office in Falmouth.  WCAI’s Patrick Flanary has this report on its work, and on one life it’s impacted.

Every Friday, at Town Hall Square, volunteers meet with at least a couple of families.  They do not help undocumented workers.  Yet many of those living here legally worry that visiting this office could undermine their effort to become citizens.

“There is that generalized fear that if I come out, someone will know I’m here,”  said Richard Vengroff, the Resource Center’s leader. He’s an immigration representative certified by the Department of Homeland Security.

Immigration law has never been this complex and nuanced, said Vengroff. This year President Trump has demanded tougher screening for visa applications, the hiring of ten thousand more agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (also referred to as ICE), and an end to sanctuary cities.

“Now they’re considering entering the country without documentation to be a crime that puts you on the priority list for deportation,” said Vengroff. “And that’s a dramatic change. It doesn’t help anybody, it doesn’t eliminate crime at all. So if you want to look at it that way, they’re deporting the wrong people.”

Many immigrants often called President Obama the “Deporter-in-Chief.” During his last year in office, ICE deported about a quarter-million people to Mexico and Central America.

Though ICE has removed fewer immigrants convicted of crimes this year, President Trump has taken a more aggressive stance on immigration.

Magdalena Kowalska came to America from South Poland in 2003.  She was the first person to visit the Resource Center’s Falmouth office when it opened in January.

“It was the same day as Donald Trump’s inauguration, so that’s why I remember it,” Kowalska said.

She was wary of initiating the process of applying for citizenship. “In the back of your head you always think, ‘What if there is something they find in your paperwork that they don’t like?’” she said.

As a single mother of two young sons, Kowalska could not afford to be deported. As a permanent resident—that’s someone who’s held a green card for at least five years—she needed help with all the forms that come with applying for naturalization.

While tending bar at Sea Crest Beach Hotel, Kowalska was introduced to Karen Guinn, a lawyer who volunteers at the Immigration Resource Center.

“I’m an immigrant myself,” Guinn said. “I came to this country nine years ago.”

Guinn went to law school in Colombia, where she grew up, before moving to Cape Cod and working out of the Resource Center’s Falmouth location.

“This was just the perfect opportunity to start volunteering and giving back to the community where I’ve been living.”  

The American Community Survey of the Census Bureau estimates about eighteen thousand foreign-born people were living on the Cape and Islands between 2011 and 2015.  About ten thousand of them are naturalized citizens.

At the end of the long path to citizenship is a test. Passing that test means demonstrating the ability to speak, read, and write in English.

“I was very nervous about the test, about the interview,” Kowalska remembered. “I wasn’t sure about what they were going to ask me at the interview. Richard and Karen explained it to me step-by-step, and made me feel more comfortable and more relaxed about the whole process.”

This Summer, at a naturalization ceremony in Boston, Kowalska joined three thousand others in taking what’s known as the Oath of Allegiance. It was their final step toward becoming citizens.

“It was exactly the same day that I came to the United States fourteen years ago,” Kowalska said. “I came to the U.S. on June 22nd, and I got my Oath Ceremony on June 22nd, so it was pretty special. So I’m American right now!”

Kowalska admits she could not have made it through the process without the months of legal help from the Resource Center in Falmouth.

“I came to the U.S., I left my family behind, which was a huge sacrifice,” Kowalska said. “But I think I did it for my future family, for my kids. And now they’re here, and they’d better not ruin this chance. They better go for it. That’s what I’m looking forward to most: looking at my kids growing up, being very successful, and living the dream.”