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Friday, March 2, 2018

Immigration Clinic opens new frontiers for USC staff and students

 By Anne Bergman

Magbuhos and her new passport

Monique Magbuhos wanted to see the City of Lights. The only problem was, she didn’t know if she could travel to Paris, France without a U.S. passport.

Born in the Phillippines, Magbuhos immigrated with her family when she was only two years old, but had never undertaken the process of becoming a citizen. She knew it was complicated and expensive. 

So, when she learned that USC Gould's Immigration Clinic was offering free assistance to members of the university community seeking U.S. citizenship, she didn't hesitate. The program, which was launched in 2017 thanks to funding and support from USC Provost Michael Quick, was widely publicized on campus and in the USC communities, and immediately grabbed Magbuhos's attention.

Magbuhos, who works in the USC Gould budget office, met with one of the 35 volunteers who in recent months have helped some 200 Angelenos complete their naturalization documents and citizenship applications. Immigration Clinic co-directors Professors Niels Frenzen and Jean Reisz oversee their efforts.

Ana Chavez was another recent client. The USC junior emigrated from Guatemala when she was a toddler. She says she appreciated the clinic’s “specific and deep guidance for each question that needed to be answered. I think it would have been difficult to navigate otherwise.” Chavez is pursuing citizenship with her mother. They have completed the biometrics requirement. Up next will be the interview portion of the process.

Before meeting with Immigration Clinic representatives, clients undergo a screening process to make sure they have all the pertinent information necessary to complete the complicated form in just one session.

“It’s a burden for many of our clients to take off work and find childcare,” explained 3L Ariana Sanudo-Kretzmann, a Gould student in the clinic who has also served as a law clerk for the Immigrant Defenders Center and the Los Angeles Public Defender Office. “So we make it as easy as possible for them to complete their applications and get back to their jobs and families.”

Aga Paul, a native of Poland, had already investigated the process of becoming a U.S. citizen on her own, but was put off by the cost of hiring an immigration attorney. “Receiving this professional assistance for free is like receiving a $3,000 gift from USC,” said Paul, a staff member at USC’s International Academy, Global and Strategic Initiatives.

USC community members seek immigration advice (photo courtesy of Aurelia Ventura La Opinion)

She met with clinic students twice. When the paperwork was complete, her documents were sealed in an addressed envelope. “All I had to do was mail it,” she said. She, too, now awaits her immigration interview.   

Gould students find the experience volunteering in the clinic not only boosts their professional lawyering skills, but also feeds a need to give back.

LLM student Ida Ayu Sabrina Putri, a citizen of Indonesia, was motivated to volunteer her time with the Clinic after she took an alternative spring break trip to the US-Mexican border town of Nogales, Ariz. and provided migrants with direct humanitarian aid. 

“I saw how immigrants had struggled to cross the desert to have a better life,” she said. “I decided I wanted to help them become citizens here; because humanitarian aid should never be a crime.”

Of the clients she has assisted, Putri fondly recalls a Kenyan woman and her teenage son. “As we listed the son’s sports achievements and awards on the citizenship form, I saw how proud the mother was. That was very meaningful for me.”

While all the work she does at the Immigration Clinic is important, Sanudo-Kretzmann finds the naturalization work especially gratifying. “Being a U.S. citizen is forever. No one can take that away from you,” she said. “People are excited to feel American—especially people who have been here a really long time.”

In the case of Magbuhos, clinic volunteers delivered some unexpected good news. Because her parents had become U.S. citizens before her 18th birthday, it turns out she had become a citizen automatically. With that hurdle out of the way, clinic staff member Jennifer Macias helped her complete the U.S. passport application.

But the moment that made the 40-year-old Magbuhos “feel American” the most was when she registered to vote. “I felt like a foreigner before,” she said. “Now I feel like I belong somewhere. And I know that being American means that voting is my responsibility. Now I won’t have any excuses to not vote and I’m looking forward to my first election!”

USC Immigration Clinic will host an Immigration Relief Information Session on March 22. Email immclinic@law.usc.edu

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