Citizenship Now! Call-in

Citizenship Now! Call-in

Citizenship Now! Call-in

For a full week starting on Monday, June 16, the first floor of the New Building at John Jay was a hive of activity as students, volunteers, and dignitaries Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner James O’Neill put on headsets and sat down to answer the phone for the CUNY/Daily News Citizenship Now! 15th annual Call-In.

The Call-In has become the biggest event of the year for the non-profit, which provides free, high quality, and confidential immigration law services to help individuals and families on their path to U.S. citizenship, and is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.

And for the first time ever, the event was held at John Jay.  “We think it’s terrific here. The people have been great, the facility is great, and the branding is great because this is a justice school,” said the organization’s director Allan Wernick. “Our vision is to go forward in the future and make this a John Jay project.”

The Call-in utilizes 80 volunteers on 80 phones lines answering calls from immigrants in 59 different languages. The volunteers are trained to get as much information as possible from the caller, then they consult with a handbook or speak with one of the lawyers on call before providing advice or directing the caller to external resources that can help with their specific needs.

According to Wernick, “Our philosophy is that poor or working class people should get the same quality of service as somebody who can hire the best immigration lawyer in town. They may have to wait a couple of hours, they won’t have the hand holding, but the legal advice they’ll get will be the same as the best immigration lawyers.”

One student volunteer, Maria Negrete, a senior Latin American Studies major at John Jay and president of a club called La Voz, said a lot of people she talked to have been legal residents for a long time and are trying to start the process of becoming citizens.  “I would ask them how long they’ve been a resident, what’s their age, and where they live in New York so I can help them connect with some of the resources they have available to them,” she said.

Alexis Juca, a political science major going into his sophomore year, said he has family members who have gone through the citizenship process before, and understands how difficult that process can be. He said working at the Call-in was “a great experience, with amazing people from all different backgrounds. It’s wonderful to help this community reach greater heights.”

One reason the Call-in has become so successful is that in addition to being a free service, it’s also anonymous.

“Anyone can pick up the phone and call from anywhere around the country,” said Eboni Mason, the organization’s events manager. “You can ask any question you might have about immigration without that fear that people are experiencing right now in the country.”

Negrete corroborated this, saying that, “not everyone resorts to city agencies, either because they’ve had experiences with fraud or they simply don’t feel safe sharing their information.”

Since its inception in 1997, CUNY Citizenship Now! has grown to be the largest legal service volunteer project in the country, with over 500 active members and six main offices.  They operate part time out of 32 city council member offices, host two events each month, and involve a wide range of volunteers including students, teachers, lawyers, and civic-minded citizens.

“I think people are recognizing that immigration is really the civil rights issue of this period,” said Wernick, who’s been with the organization since the beginning. “There are many other important issues like women’s rights, gay rights, black lives matter – all of these things are important and we progressive people support those issues – but I think there’s a general consensus among all groups that immigration laws are really the issue for the next few years.”

One of Wernick and Mason’s goals for Citizenship Now! is to eventually host an event every week.  Wernick also wants John Jay to have its own office.  “I think we need to do it. That’s the next step,” he said.