Gabriela Gilner remembers how difficult it was to become a U.S. citizen.
The Mexico native remembers the slow trickle of English words she struggled to learn, the uncertainty she felt as she translated bits and pieces of conversations for her parents, who understood even less of the language than she did.
She remembers the thousands of dollars her family spent on application fees and legal bills, hoping the cost would be worth it.
After years of patience, paperwork and meetings, Gilner took the Pledge of Allegiance and became a naturalized citizen. Now, she wants to help others do the same.
This weekend, Gilner and a team of volunteers will guide permanent legal residents in Middle Georgia through the ins and outs of the naturalization process at a free citizenship clinic Saturday at Centenary United Methodist Church in Macon. Hosted by Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Atlanta and the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, the event will offer multilingual assistance to immigrants who need help filling out their citizenship applications.
“It’s hard not to relate to those people when you see them struggling, because you see your own family,” Gilner said. “It’s hard not to want to translate for them and show them the way and tell them, ‘This is what you need to do,’ because you’ve done it before.”
Through events like the citizenship clinic, Gilner hopes to connect Middle Georgia’s immigrant community with the help they need, but often struggle to find. That’s why she and Gigi Weaver, a Macon-based legal interpreter, recently started the nonprofit organization Nuestra Voz Middle Georgia.
“We’re trying to bridge the gap of information and outreach,” Gilner said.
There’s no shortage of resources for Hispanic immigrants in Middle Georgia, Weaver said. Several Macon organizations offer translation services, transportation to immigration court appointments, legal guidance and other assistance with the citizenship application process. Several local attorneys also specialize in immigration law.
One resource Macon hasn’t offered in years is a free citizenship clinic, where immigrants can get help with their citizenship applications without paying a hefty attorney’s fee. Organizations like Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Atlanta host monthly clinics throughout Metro Atlanta. Gilner and Weaver recruited the group to bring their services to Macon.
Weaver hopes clinic attendees will encourage their friends and family to go through the application process, too. Many immigrants with green cards hesitate to apply for citizenship, she said. But she hopes more green card holders will take the final step to become naturalized citizens so they don’t have to worry about losing their residency status if a law changes.
“It’s a limited permanent residency, so it’s not really permanent,” she said. “It has limits, and it can be revoked.”
Citizenship also grants immigrants additional rights they can’t exercise as permanent residents, like the right to vote. Given recent shifts in immigration policy, Weaver thinks it’s more important than ever for immigrants to play an active role in their communities.
“This is their home,” she said, “and they should be able to make their voice heard, which they can’t do without that legal citizenship.”
If you’d like to attend Saturday’s clinic, register for an appointment at bit.ly/citizenshipclinic61.
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. Follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/smax1996 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.