'Pathway' program to help Nassau immigrants become citizens

Members of an alliance of nonprofit, corporate and government agencies gathered in Hempstead village on April 29, 2014, to announce the launch of a “Pathway to Citizenship” program that will assist immigrants who are Nassau County residents in becoming United States citizens. (Credit: Newsday / Jessica Rotkiewicz)

Members of an alliance of nonprofit, corporate and government agencies gathered in Hempstead village on April 29, 2014, to announce the launch of a “Pathway to Citizenship” program that will assist immigrants who are Nassau County residents in becoming United States citizens. (Credit: Newsday / Jessica Rotkiewicz)

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Members of a partnership of public and private institutions launched a "Pathway to Citizenship" initiative Tuesday to assist immigrants who are Nassau County residents in becoming U.S. citizens.

The alliance of nonprofit, corporate and government agencies recognizes that Long Island has become "a major immigrant gateway" that needs to not just embrace its growing foreign-born population but also see it thrive, said Patrick Young, program director of the Central American Refugee Center, the advocacy group administering the project.

"We've seen a big change on Long Island over the last five years," Young told more than 100 people at the Village of Hempstead's Kennedy Memorial Park. "We've seen Long Islanders of every description come together to say we are not going to accept hatred. We want immigrants to be part of our community."

Essentially, the Pathway program will provide legal assistance and guidance to immigrants who are legal residents and qualify for naturalization, helping them file the paperwork, cover required fees and prepare for the citizenship test.

It is not a legalization program for those in the country illegally, who would need Congress to change immigration laws before they could even qualify for residency. The program's legal fees and outreach costs will be funded for one year through a $145,000 grant from the Long Island Community Development Office at Citi, the multinational banking corporation.

Immigrants who can't afford the $680 in citizenship application fees, and who don't qualify for waivers, can request microloans from Bethpage Federal Credit Union, another program partner. The initiative will work with the New York Office for New Americans and other state agencies to help immigrant professionals seek certification to use their skills here.

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"This pilot [program] represents multifaceted opportunities for individuals," said Pat Edwards, Citi's vice president for community development on Long Island. The immigrants who benefit from the program, she added, "will be empowering their communities with more economic stability and ultimately long-range acquiring of assets to achieve the American dream, if you will."

New York Secretary of State Cesar Perales said the effort has the backing of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo: "We really think that immigrants are making a tremendous contribution and need to be given the opportunity to make an even greater one."

Hempstead resident Silvia Padilla, 32, signed herself and her husband up for the program. A systems engineer in their native El Salvador, he works moving furniture here. She was a law student there and is now unemployed. She said getting citizenship and pursuing degrees could impact their lives in a big way.

"We want to build a future in the United States, working hard and studying so that someday we can give our future children all the opportunities," she said. "That's everyone's dream."

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