Tri-City citizenship program loses funds

PASCO — The people Scott Michael of World Relief greets at the Tri-Cities Airport come here hoping to rebuild their lives after being devastated by war or persecution.

Some have been disabled by torture, by roadside bombs, by poverty.

Some are seniors who want to live their remaining years in peace and freedom.

It gratifies Michael to help them find a home, to give them a basket of clothes and food and household goods to start their new lives, to place them in jobs, to teach them English and eventually to help submit the paperwork to make them American citizens.

But that latter service soon will be eliminated as the state's Office of Refugee and Immigration Assistance cancels the funding that pays for dozens of Tri-Citians to apply for citizenship each year.

Michael, the nonprofit's director, doesn't fault the state -- times are tough and cuts have to be made -- but he worries for refugees who are elderly or disabled because citizenship is necessary for them to get Social Security payments that keep them in their homes and buy the food for their tables.

"We are grateful for the generosity of Washington state for helping so many refugees," he said. "We're grateful to have been able to do this for 12 years."

Tom Medina, chief of the state's refugee assistance office, announced in an Oct. 1 letter that the Naturalization Program providing World Relief in Richland with money for its citizenship program would be eliminated statewide effective Dec. 1.

The program was started in 1997 and has served 20,000 clients, with more than 10,000 becoming naturalized American citizens.

"We recognize how important it is for immigrants residing here to become U.S. citizens," Medina wrote. "However, with the current economic crisis, we must give precedence to programs that address the survival needs of our clients."

Immigrants with refugee status -- those who have been persecuted or fear persecution because of their religion, race, social group or political beliefs -- can apply for citizenship after they've been in the country for four years and nine months, Michael said.

World Relief offers training to pass the citizenship test, but Michael said the more critical piece is help with the complicated application paperwork.

The nonprofit has two people on staff -- including Michael -- who are trained and accredited to file paperwork on behalf of refugees, but the $52,000 from the state for World Relief's citizenship program each year helps pay for those salaries.

Without the state money, Michael said staffing changes will have to be made. He did not offer details how that might be done.

The agency has the option to charge nominal fees, but is struggling with the idea of charging people who already live on little income.

Michael said the citizenship program will end in about six weeks, but that World Relief will look for community alternatives where people can get help.

He added that World Relief also has been told to expect a 15 percent cut to its state funding for English as a second language and job programs.

He tried to stay upbeat about the situation World Relief's clients face.

"I see this as an opportunity for churches and other houses of worship to do more," he said. "It's an opportunity for the community to come together to make sure these folks don't slip through the cracks."

For more information about World Relief, call the agency at 734-5477 or go to worldrelief.org.