U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services awarded $250,000 to Fayetteville-based nonprofit group Arkansas United to help immigrants gain citizenship and integrate into their communities in Arkansas, the group announced Wednesday.
"If you want to know what Arkansas United does, imagine you moved to France and don't speak French or much French," said Joshua Ang Price, Arkansas United's deputy director. "How are you going to navigate the school system? Get a driver's license? Sign up for public assistance?"
Helping immigrants through such systems and to attain citizenship is what the group does, he said during a Wednesday news conference.
Mireya Reith, Arkansas United founding executive director, agreed, saying the group's goal is to help immigrants fully integrate.
"Our goal is to work ourselves out of a job," she said Wednesday.
The group's priority for the one-time grant is to conduct a study to assess what immigrants in Arkansas need most, Reith said. This is the first time the federal immigration service has awarded such a grant to any entity in Arkansas, she said. The federal agency awarded these grants in the past to groups in states based on the size of their immigrant community, and Arkansas' population is relatively small, she said.
Anel Garza, an employee of the Springdale School District, is an immigrant who attained citizenship. She attended the news conference by video link, saying more help in the endeavor such as proposed by Arkansas United would have been of great assistance. Speaking in Spanish, Garza said she studied to pass the citizenship test during breaks at work and learned parts of it by putting the answers into song and singing them. One motivation to get citizenship, she said, was going with her husband when he voted and not being able to vote herself. She was able to vote with him in the last election, she said.
This year the immigration service changed its criteria to reflect where such grants can make the most impact, she said.
One need Arkansas United knows immigrants have is for legal services, Reith said.
"Arkansas ranks 50th in the country in attorneys per capita" among the 50 states, she said. That's for all attorneys. The need for attorneys who practice immigration law is greater, she said.
The grant will go into a "Together Towards Citizenship" project, Reith and Price said. The project will include immigrant integration fairs and working groups for employers, schools, municipalities and immigrant-serving nonprofits.
"We are elated to receive this grant from USCIS, especially considering that Arkansas has the fourth fastest-growing immigrant population in the nation," Reith said.
Fifty-seven percent of immigrants living in Arkansas have lived in the United States for 10 years or more, Reith said. One goal of the Together Towards Citizenship project will be to convince longtime residents of the advantages of citizenship and to help them achieve it, she said. Another is to help immigrants make better use of the skills they brought to the United States.
"We have people who were doctors in the countries they came from working as janitors here," she said.
The latest figures available show immigrants making up 5% of the state's population and 7% of its labor force, Reith said. Immigrants are particularly heavily represented in the manufacturing and construction sectors of the economy, she said.
The goal of immigration services' Citizenship and Integration Grant Program is to expand access to high-quality citizenship preparation services for immigrants across the nation, equipping them with the knowledge and skills essential for seamless integration into American society, according to the agency's website. The program is in its 15th year.
Arkansas United operates regional immigrant resource centers in Fayetteville and Little Rock.
On the web
Arkansas United website