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ARKANSAS (KTAL/KMSS) — Arkansas’s first and only statewide immigration advocacy group has been awarded a $250,000 federal grant from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
The nonprofit group Arkansas United (A.U.) will launch “The Together Towards Citizenship (TTC) 2023 Innovation Project,” which aims to help Arkansas immigrants overcome persistent barriers and create a new innovative program for citizenship preparation.
Through the Citizenship and Integration Grant Program, the TTC program will focus on closing citizenship service gaps in rural communities and the entire state.
“We are elated to receive this grant from USCIS, especially considering that Arkansas has the fourth fastest-growing immigrant population in the nation, particularly our Hispanic, Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI), and Desi communities,” said Arkansas United Founding Executive Director, Mireya Reith.
A.U. highlighted that their organization comprises of first and second-generation immigrants who understand and are familiar with the challenges of naturalization.
Critical components of the TTC program will include:
- Citizenship readiness assessments,
- Immigrant integration fairs; working groups for employers, schools, municipalities, and immigrant-serving nonprofits; and
- The expansion of A.U.’s community navigator program, through which first-generation immigrants and their families receive assistance in navigating all the opportunities and resources available in Arkansas to fulfill their potential in our state and country.
Reith emphasizes how Arkansas has the 4th fastest-growing immigrant population in the country. 57% have lived in the U.S. for more than ten years.
Reith said, “This grant will enable us to expand our efforts in empowering immigrants and promoting their full participation in our communities and their full potential as U.S. citizens.”
Barries Arkansas Immigrants Face
Deputy Director of AU, Joshua Ang Price, stated in their 13 years of experience working with immigrant communities across the state, A.U. identified persistent barriers to fulfilling the potential of immigrants looking to transition to citizens.
“You know, sometimes, as immigrants, we feel like we’re perpetual foreigners even though we were born here or have lived here for several generations. We feel like sometimes, maybe we’re just- the United States isn’t our home,” explained Price.
Price says barriers such as lack of relationship with service providers, language access, lack of immigration attorneys, and insufficient data on Legal Permanent Residents (commonly known as ‘Green Card Holders’) are where A.U. comes in.
“But we at A.U. want to make sure that immigrants who are here now realize that Arkansas is their home, and we want to help them have access and opportunities so they can build that for themselves and their families,” expressed Price.
He said A.U. is touching 100,000 immigrants per year and their goal is to host more virtual classes like English as a Second Language classes (ESL).
Virtual classes are free and through subsidized state and federal government support. They have a 10-page list of free education classes based on their location.
“Workforce, we came to be humbly reminded due to a lack of immigration attorneys. There’s no centralized place looking at different ethnic groups to support foreign professionals,” said Founding Director Reith.
She said due to the challenges immigrants face, she often sees “Doctors in their home countries become janitors here.”
According to a 2019 Arkansas ALICE Report, the number of immigrants has doubled from 73,690 in 2000 to 140,000 in 2017.
Price stated that nearly one-third of immigrants in the states have become citizens and 29% are legal permanent residents.
He said the majority of current immigrants in Arkansas have come from Mexico (42%), El Salvador (9%), India (6%), and China (4%), alongside smaller populations from Vietnam and the Marshall Islands.
A few years ago, when Anel Garza spoke in Spanish and Reith translated, “She was intentional in picking citizen support in English, and she was really motivated to study.”
Garza works within Custodial Services; she dedicated her lunch break to preparing for the citizenship test and had to ask her employer if she could take one day off.
Her closing remarks, ‘she wants the Hispanic community to know there are really nice people at the USCIS, and back then when it was COVID, she was sworn in and in the same week and immediately after Garza registered to vote.’
A.U. Together Toward Citizenship program
A.U. stated, “We told the USCIS the time is now” to focus on rural states and systemic change.
They aim to build an immigrant leadership’ navigator’ program, training those directly impacted and making legal services, community fairs, Spanish driving law classes, and citizenship teachers more accessible for immigrants.