FARMINGTON HILLS, Mich. -- Barbara Kochanek, 72, was on the verge of giving up on her dream of becoming a U.S. citizen. The Polish immigrant didn't speak much English and she was scared she wouldn't pass the test.
But the staff at the International Institute of Metropolitan Detroit -- a local organization that helps immigrants become citizens -- told her she could do it, and that they would help her every step of the way.
She doesn't drive, so they picked her up from her home and took her to her appointments, and arranged a translator for her.
And when she took the test, she says it was a piece of cake.
On Jan. 19, 2014, the 72-year-old became a U.S. citizen.
How she did it:
Kochanek read in a Polish newspaper about the Detroit New Americans Campaign -- a coalition of six local agencies that provide free assistance to help green card holders like her apply for citizenship.
At first she didn't believe it.
"I said, 'No, I don't believe someone would do this for free. Nothing's for free,'" she said through a translator.
But there was an even bigger surprise: As an elder who has lived in the United States for many years with a green card, Kochanek qualified to take the exam in her native language.
Her sister-in-law brought her the newspaper she'd picked up from church.
"Look, you have a chance," her sister-in-law told her. "You can speak Polish."
"That was my dream since I came to the United States," she explained, "to become a U.S. citizen."
Kochanek spoke to some 40 ethnic media and community leaders at a luncheon organized by New America Media at Antonio's Cucina Italiana in Farmington Hills, just outside of Detroit.
A key window of time to apply for citizenship:
The International Institute of Metropolitan Detroit is part of the Detroit New Americans Campaign, which helps eligible legal permanent residents like Kochanek to become citizens. The campaign -- which also includes Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan, Centro Multicultural La Familia, Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, Michigan United and South Asian American Voices for Impact -- holds free citizenship workshops throughout the metropolitan Detroit area.
This is a crucial window of time for people to apply for citizenship, said Wojciech Zolnowski, executive director of the International Institute of Metropolitan Detroit.
The citizenship application is currently only 10 pages long; starting in May, a new application will be required that is twice as long.
In Detroit and cities across the country, the national New Americans Campaign is holding free citizenship workshops to help as many people as possible apply for citizenship before the change goes into effect.
"The best known benefit of citizenship is the right to vote," said Susan Reed, supervising attorney with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center. But there are many other benefits, she noted, including access to critical public benefits and programs like Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicare, the ability to travel freely on a U.S. passport, and protection from deportation of minor children.
But in a region still struggling to revive its economy, one of the most crucial impacts could be economic.
Reviving the economy:
Studies have shown that naturalized citizens earn more than their noncitizen counterparts.
A 2012 report by the Migration Policy Institute finds that immigrants who naturalize see at least a five percent earnings boost; a 2012 study by Manuel Pastor and Justin Scoggins of the University of Southern California estimated that earnings increase by eight to 11 percent.
"There are 70,000 eligible LPR [Lawful Permanent Resident] workers in our region," said former State Representative Steve Tobocman, who has led the economic revitalization organization Global Detroit for the last five years. "If they all went through that [naturalization] process next year, their earnings would increase by $190 to $270 million collectively, not including the multiplier impact of their spending," Tobocman said.
"The future of this state, this city, this nation is really in the hands of those who understand it," said Bing Goei, director of the Michigan Office for New Americans. The office, established on Jan. 31 by executive order by Governor Rick Snyder, drives strategies for attracting immigrants to Michigan. "This state and this nation were built on the innovation, passion and energies of immigrants."
The whole family:
For media and community leaders, the topic of citizenship is a personal one. Laila Alhusini of U.S. Arab Radio said that her mother, who is 80, was going to be sworn in as a citizen the following day.
Blanca Mares, community support coordinator for the Centro Multicultural La Familia, said that after she became a citizen, she decided to help her mother and sister through the process.
Her mother, who has been here more than 30 years and doesn't speak much English, was able to take the test in Spanish. Because she doesn't have an income, she was able to get a fee waiver so she didn't have to pay anything.
"Now my mom is a proud U.S. citizen," said Mares. "My mom did it, my sister did it, I did it. So yes, we can do it."
Kochanek says she has also recruited two other people to become U.S. citizens.
"To me, it's the right thing to do," she said. "You're living here, you should become a citizen of this country."
Free Citizenship Workshops in Metro Detroit
Saturday, Feb. 22 in Pontiac
12:30 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.
St. Michael/St. Damien of Molokai Parish, 120 Lewis Street
Call Blanca Mares at 248.858.7800 ext. 1005 to register
Saturday, March 1 in Hamtrack
10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
Gates of Columbus, 9623 Conant Street
Saturday, March 22 in Madison Heights
10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
Sikh Society of Michigan
990 E. Lincoln Ave.
Saturday, April 5 in Canton
10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
Location to be announced
What You Need to Bring:
• Your Permanent Resident Card ("Green Card")
• Two passport photos (2" x 2") of yourself
• Your driver's license or state ID card
• Your Social Security number
• If you are married to a U.S. citizen, his/her birth certificate and/or certificate of naturalization if married for less than five years
• All marriage certificates and divorce records
• Your children's birth certificates if they are also permanent residents
• List of residences for the past five years
• List of employers/schools for the past five years
• A list of every trip you have taken outside the U.S. (including trips to Canada and Mexico)
• Check or money order for $680, payable to the Department of Homeland Security, OR you may qualify for a fee waiver.
For more information about the Detroit New Americans Campaign, please visit detroitnac.org
For more information about the New Americans Campaign, go to www.newamericanscampaign.org.