By Candace Kelley
Eduardo Meza believes citizenship means empowerment. Meza is the executive director of We Are One – Hudson County Center — a project of the AFL-CIO. It’s the first of its kind in the state. Meza is working through a stack of 100 applicants who want assistance from his office. Here legal, permanent residents can get legal counseling and take a free 10-week class to prepare them to take the citizenship test.
“Hudson County has one of the highest number of people who are eligible to become legal citizens but they for whatever reason haven’t taken advantage of this opportunity,” Meza said.
According to the AFL-CIO, there are 93,000 legal permanent immigrants in Hudson County eligible to become U.S. citizens. Sen. Cory Booker and Sen. Robert Menendez were on hand when the center opened in October to encourage people to use the services. Both noted that U.S. citizens get better jobs and health care. But some still find it hard to navigate the process.
“Managing anxiety because they don’t know where to start, they don’t know how to start the application process. The application actually went from 10 pages to 23 in the past year,” said Meza.
Many also fear they don’t have the proper language skills. And then there’s the cost.
“Currently the application fee is $680 and that includes finger printing and the actual application,” Meza said.
The center is backed by a $125,000 grant from the county, monies used for study books and flash cards. And for those who think they’re alone in the process, there are close to 100 volunteers and attorneys who provide clients with wage advocacy information and notary services.
Clients of the center come here to take their 10-week citizenship course and they perform a mock interview.
Meza says the interviews often make people extremely nervous, but the practice calms the nerves. He is also says that he is encouraged about the fact that helping people get their citizenship will enable them to vote.
“We also give them a little education about the citywide voting, state and federal so they can at least be aware of how to register beforehand,” Meza said.
He says the word about the center has been spreading and he’s quickly following up on those who have already applied to receive help because he’s certain a lot more will be knocking at the center’s door.