‘I Could Do Something’

Beth Oppenheim-Chan | September 30, 2013

A young refugee family integrating into their new life and community in the U.S. Photo: CWS

A young refugee family integrating into their new life and community in the U.S. Photo: CWS

I stood at the photocopy machine, trying to make sense of the large file before me. Certain documents had to be copied once, while others needed more than one made. A bit confused, I went back to our Associate Director for Immigration to ask for more direction. We were conducting a naturalization workshop in partnership with another agency and clients were arriving for their appointments.

I was aware that many of the clients we were seeing had been seeking immigration help from anyone who had previously offered it. This included unauthorized notarios, who pretended to be immigration consultants while charging large sums of money with no legal authority. These clients were ready to end this long and complicated road with the goal of American citizenship. They were trusting CWS with their cases, and by default, deeply personal decisions about their lives.

At the time I still questioned my own contribution. I wasn’t fluent in Spanish, so I could not assist in filling out the naturalization form directly for many of them. I could greet them and help them get to their assigned desk, photocopy their documents, and lend a helping hand wherever else I was needed. Was this enough?

It got me thinking about what it means to care about an issue. To be an advocate. To stand up for something. I had never considered myself an “immigration advocate,” but the more time I spent working at CWS and observing the work that we do for many different types of clients, the more I felt this identity shifting. Even though I couldn’t do everything, I could do something.

As I continued photocopying that evening, I received direction that I needed to copy every page in the passport that had a travel stamp on it. For some of our clients, this was up to forty pages of copies! I was looking at the lives of people in these pages: trips to see family, friends, vacations, weddings, births of children. Within this small activity, I was getting a glimpse at the struggle that would finally ease within some of these families. I realized just how important this issue – and the broader policy debate over immigration reform – was to me in that moment.

Since June 2012, CWS has provided legal advice to over 130 permanent residents on becoming a U.S. citizen. This has included church clinics, partnering with local organizations in New York City, and seeing clients regularly in the CWS New York office. For more information on all the services CWS provides to immigrants nationwide, please visit us online!

Beth Oppenheim-Chan is CWS’ Associate Director for Resource Generation.