Citizenship Day 2023: Interview With Estefany Hanson of Catholic Charities Community Services of Arizona

Citizenship EventsEstefany Hanson is the Citizenship Coordinator at Catholic Charities Community Services (CCCS) of Arizona, based in Phoenix. CCCS Arizona is the local site leader of the New Americans Campaign (NAC), a project dedicated to expanding access to citizenship for U.S. permanent residents. Hanson’s program has quadrupled in capacity since the organization joined the NAC in 2018. In honor of Citizenship Day 2023, CLINIC sat down with Hansen to learn more about her work and the program’s success.

Q: Can you tell me about your role and how long you’ve worked at CCCS?

A: I have been working at Catholic Charities’ Community Services in the immigration legal services division since 2017. I started as a caseworker, helping manage cases of immigrants applying for legal status, and during that time I studied and applied to become a Department of Justice accredited representative. After gaining my accreditation, the opportunity to become Citizenship Coordinator arose when our organization decided to join the NAC, and I jumped on it and immediately applied. I have been working in this role ever since, and I am so honored to do this work.

Q: What inspires you to do this work?

A: I am a naturalized citizen myself. I came to this country as a permanent resident and became a citizen as soon as I could. I know first-hand the benefits of citizenship, and it is a privilege and joy to help other people gain the advantages of becoming citizens. It truly changes people’s lives! As permanent residents, individuals must renew their green cards every 10 years, which is very expensive, and there are limitations to the amount of time they can travel abroad and to the ability to sponsor family members. With citizenship, the financial burden is decreased; individuals can vote and fully participate in society; they can live, work, and travel freely; and they can sponsor family members to join them in the United States. It makes a huge difference in people’s lives, and we need to spread the word that we are here to help people in this process.

Q: How has membership in the NAC changed the citizenship programming at your organization?

A: Prior to joining the NAC, we were a small office trying to offer as many immigration legal services as possible. We had an attorney and four caseworkers, and we all worked very hard, but our capacity was limited, particularly in the area of citizenship applications. There was a large demand, but we could only help about 350 applicants for citizenship per year.

When we joined the NAC, we received funding and mentorship that allowed us to start offering citizenship application workshops and do significantly more outreach. In the first year of our NAC membership alone, with were able to complete around 700 citizenship applications. The NAC transformed our program.

Q: Can you tell me a bit more about the workshop model and how you were able to expand your programming?

A: Sure! The workshop model allows us to rely on volunteers to help us fill out hundreds of applications in the course of just a single event.

Leading up to the workshop, we train volunteers on how to help clients fill out the basic application for naturalization, known as the N-400. All applications will be reviewed and supervised by attorneys or accredited representatives, but volunteers can do the bulk of the initial work with the applicant to get the forms filled out. This greatly increases capacity.

On the day of the workshop, we set up a variety of stations across a large room. First, clients arrive and are pre-screened at the first station to ensure they are coming with all the appropriate documentation needed to fill out the citizenship application. They are screened and given a “green flag” if they have a straightforward application, an “orange flag” if it seems like their application may have additional complexities requiring extra review, and a “red flag” if they will certainly need the help of an attorney. They are then sent to either the team of volunteers (if they have a green flag) or to an attorney or representative to help them fill out the forms. All applications are eventually reviewed by a qualified representative.

Other stations available throughout the event include a station where applicants can learn how to get a zero-interest bank loan or a fee waiver for the $725 application fee, another where they can learn about how to find free English classes and civics classes to pass the citizenship interview, and another where they can learn about other social services offered to immigrant families.

Relying on volunteers like this has increased our capacity enormously! This past year, through additional NAC funding and CLINIC mentorship, we were able host events to fill out over 1200 applications for citizenship.

Q: What other resources have you gained from NAC membership?

A: In addition to funding and constant mentorship, we also applied for a particular “innovation grant,” which has allowed us the finding to create a unique website for the three NAC sites in Phoenix. This website will centralize all the information about how to apply for citizenship in the Phoenix area, and will be hosted jointly by the three member organizations of the NAC in our area. It will increase our ability to share information about events, volunteering, and will increase our outreach to immigrant communities. It is an amazing new tool that we can use to spread the word!

Q: What are the most important choices you’ve made that have led to the growth of the program? What advice do you have for others trying to grow their citizenship outreach programs?

A: My biggest piece of advice is make connections that will help with spreading the word to immigrant communities and volunteers.

Our work relies on having enough volunteers. If you have enough volunteers you can do more events and have more capacity to help people. As a Catholic organization, we work with the Catholic parishes to post information about citizenship workshop events and to gain volunteers. We also work closely with local colleges — colleges always have volunteers available! We work hard to make reliable connections so that we can continue hosting as many citizenship workshop events as possible.

Another piece of advice is that organizing the workshops carefully is important, to make it a good flow. If you have enough practice, the workshop will go well and you can help many more people. If people (clients and volunteers) have a good experience at the workshop, they recommend it to others, and the numbers grow.

Of course, we make mistakes, learn from them, improve over time. The first workshop I ever ran was crazy — I was by myself with the attorney in our office. We were just expecting a few applicants, but we had so many people show up, we didn’t have enough volunteers, we had to scramble in order to meet the need. We learned from the experience and it has gotten so much better over time!

The pandemic was also a huge learning curve, as we offered virtual citizenship workshops for the first time. This was an enormous challenge, as we had to figure out a whole set of new issues related to the flow of the event online — to set up many breakout rooms, confidential folders where volunteers could access the applicants’ appropriate documents, pre-screening sessions, etc. It was a lot of work to set up, but once we got the flow down, people really liked it and it actually increased our capacity greatly. It saves a lot of time for some people if they can just show up to a virtual event instead of driving across town.

Now, we offer hybrid events, with some in-person capacity and some online capacity. This has worked really well.

We are so grateful to be able to have expanded our programming, and we look forward to continuing to grow and spread the word about the incredible benefits of citizenship.