In 2017, the City of Philadelphia joined with the Philadelphia Bar Association and several non-profit legal aid organizations to form Take Action Philly (TAP). This initiative united lawyers, government, and community organizations to help City residents. Following a convening on immigrant and refugee issues in February of 2017, TAP formed a series of citizenship clinics. These clinics called upon Philadelphia’s legal community to help eligible immigrants complete their pathway to citizenship and assist refugees in adjusting their status.
Ellen Berkowitz, a Senior Attorney at the City of Philadelphia Law Department, was one of many who answered the call to volunteer.
“When the first Muslim ban hit, I was desperate to do something,” said Ellen.
Take Action Philly provided an opportunity for Ellen to get involved. Ellen and over 200 other attorneys were trained to help eligible green card holders complete the naturalization process.
Through a two-step process, TAP attorneys reviewed cases of aspiring citizens. Complicated cases were handled by legal nonprofits, while simple cases were referred to TAP volunteer attorneys. At citizenship clinics, TAP attorneys like Ellen helped clients complete their applications.
“At my first clinic, I was assigned a naturalization case. A 42-year old woman with a young son who came here from Liberia after winning a visa lottery,” says Ellen. “She had absolutely every single piece of paper she needed in perfect order. She could easily have filed without my help, but I was there and these are scary times.”
Although Ellen’s client submitted her paperwork in June, it would be months before USCIS could process her application.
“In the summer she had a fingerprinting appointment and then there was a long, concerning wait. There’s a backlog.”
From 2016 to 2017, the average naturalization processing time nearly doubled, from about five months to almost nine months, according to a report from the National Partnership for New Americans.
But on March 23, 2018, Ellen contacted the Office of Immigrant Affairs with great news. Her client had finally become a U.S. citizen.
“On Monday she took her citizenship test and passed with flying colors,” said Ellen. “Today, she took the oath of citizenship with 67 other applicants from 36 countries at the Homeland Security building in West Philadelphia.”
“I have no doubt that my client could have made it through on her own,” said Ellen. “She picked herself up and brought herself to a new country with a toddler. Compared to that, filling out forms is nothing. But she came to the clinic and let me help, and I am so lucky that I got to be there as a backstop.”
Ellen’s client is one of many TAP clients now obtaining U.S. citizenship. About 100 aspiring citizens have been helped by TAP volunteer attorneys.
In 2018, TAP citizenship efforts continue through a partnership with the New Americans Campaign (NAC) to expand naturalization efforts across Philadelphia. Citizenship screenings and clinics are happening through June.
“Sometimes you can make things a little bit better,” says Ellen. “Or at least watch when something wonderful happens.”