By Todd Cohen
GREENSBORO, N.C. — The first week in January, a handful of students from Leadership Greensboro volunteered at the Greensboro affiliate of Church World Service, conducting mock job interviews with immigrants participating in the agency’s employment-services program.
Since it opened in March 2009, the Greensboro affiliate has provided basic-needs assistance, case management, cultural orientation, and employment services to over 400 refugees arriving in Greensboro through the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program.
And last year, the affiliate launched two new initiatives, including a more intensive cultural-orientation program, and a new program that provides naturalization and citizenship services.
Church World Service and its immigration and refugee program were created in 1946 to help address the needs of refugees from Europe during World War II.
The Greensboro affiliate, which includes the immigration and refugee program, operates with an annual budget of roughly $750,000 and a staff of eight people working full-time and one working part-time, plus a full-time AmeriCorps volunteer and hourly and part-time interpreters.
With a capacity-building grant of $116,000 from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Greensboro affiliate last summer hired a full-time attorney to provide eligibility screening and legal assistance to applicants, and a full-time civics-education coordinator to oversee a broad range of civics classes to help applicants prepare to pass the citizenship exam.
Sarah Ivory, director of the affiliate, says it is a misconception that immigrants who are not citizens are not in the U.S. lawfully.
Many immigrants have not become citizens for a lot of reasons, she says, mainly because they lack access to resources and cannot afford the $645 fee to apply for citizenship.
The process itself can take four to six months, and refugees are not eligible to apply for citizenship for five years after arriving in the U.S., she says.
And the process of becoming a citizen, known as “naturalization,” can be tough for many immigrants, she says
Many immigrants may not know if they are eligible for citizenship or how to go about becoming a citizen, for example, and the immigration laws and legal application are complicated, she says.
And applicants must take a multi-part test that includes civics as well as reading, writing and speaking in English, Ivory says, a test for which they may not be prepared.
Fifty students enrolled in the inaugural class on citizenship and naturalization the affiliate launched last fall, including five who already had started their naturalization application process and now have taken the test and been naturalized.
The affiliate in its first year mainly resettled a large number of ethnic Vietnamese who had been living in forced-reeducation camps or under military supervision in Vietnam and were granted safety in the U.S. under the McCain amendment approved by Congress.
The main refugee populations the office now serves are from Burma and Bhutan, two of the largest groups currently being resettled throughout the U.S.
All newly-arrived refugees in the U.S. go through the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program, a program of the Department of State that is offered throughout the country by agencies like Church World Service.
All resettlement services are free, with a federal stipend that covers refugees’ expenses during their first months and must be spent within 90 days on needs such as housing, food, case management and employment services.
Church World Service buys groceries for refugees before they arrive, for example, and helps them apply for food stamps; arranges for donated furniture to be moved to their housing, and for the purchase of household items; meets refugee families at the airport; and helps orient refugees to the community and culture.
Employment services include recording refugees’ job history, helping them prepare resumes, and providing job-readiness skills such as how to handle a job interview.
The new cultural orientation program, offered in partnership with community experts, consists of a three-week program, five mornings a week, that looks at issues such using public transportation, buying groceries, understanding housing rights, taking care of an apartment, and learning about good health and nutrition.
The agency also plans to expand its legal services and naturalization and citizenship services to Burlington, Siler City and High Point in partnership with local agencies in those communities, where the immigrant population is mainly Latino.
And, thanks to a $10,000 gift from Congregational United Church of Christ, the affiliate is opening a computer lab that will provide training in basic computer skills, online job searching, and computer-based English-language training.