ATLANTA — One morning in March 2014, Rachel Bol earned something she had never had before. After spending most of her life in refugee camps, she finally had a country where she could live safely — and one she could call her own.
“God helped me become a U.S. citizen,” said the 47-year-old South Sudan native during an ethnic media roundtable at the Latin American Association here. “For the very first time, I have a passport — [an American] passport that will protect me.”
Bol, her husband and their young daughter fled the violence of Sudan’s brutal civil war in 1987, to Ethiopia. A few years later, Bol gave birth to two boys in a refugee camp. Her husband was then killed in the war.
In 2006, 16 years after raising her children in three different refugee camps, Bol decided to move to Atlanta, by herself.
It was difficult for her to leave her children behind, she recalled, but she knew it would open a new life for all of them.
Soon after Bol became a U.S. citizen, she was able to petition for her two sons, now in their 20s, to come live with her in the United States.
“Being an American citizen is very good,” she said. “I finally have my boys with me.”
She hopes that her green card petition for her daughter, who is married and still lives with her own family in Ethiopia, will be processed soon.
A new campaign in Atlanta
Atlanta has the second fastest-growing immigrant population in the country, after Baltimore. Thirteen percent of Atlanta immigrants are eligible to apply for citizenship, according to Luisa Cardona, deputy director of immigrant affairs for the Atlanta Mayor’s Office.
Yet many eligible immigrants here have not taken that step.
In response, a group of local community organizations has joined the nonpartisan national network New Americans Campaign with a common goal: to support as many immigrants and refugees as they can to become U.S. citizens.
These organizations include the Latin American Association, New American Pathways, Catholic Charities-Atlanta, Center for Pan Asian Community Services (CPACS), Asian American Advancing Justice (AAAJ)-Atlanta, GALEO, and International Rescue Committee — the organization that helped Bol throughout her naturalization process.
Clarkston Mayor Edward Terry described the naturalization of immigrants and refugees, like Bol, as “a manifestation of the American dream.”
“As [naturalized] citizens, they are given an equal voice, just like those who were born in this country,” he said. “They can vote, and that allows them to give direction for their community.”
The city of Clarkston, about 20 miles east of Atlanta, is home to about 10,000 residents. According to Mayor Terry, immigrants and refugees account for half of its population.
“It’s the Ellis Island of the South,” he said. “People say, ‘Oh, it’s a sanctuary city.’ That term is a political ballgame. I’d like to call it ‘a city of refuge.’”
Since the Atlanta-area citizenship campaign began nine months ago, these organizations have already conducted 21 free citizenship workshops and assisted 1,176 people apply for naturalization.
“Because of this partnership, immigrant and refugee communities have already saved about $1.1 million in legal and citizenship application fees,” said Javeria Jamil, staff attorney of AAAJ-Atlanta. “And we have served applicants from more than 40 countries.”
The next citizenship workshop in Atlanta will be on June 17 at the Mexican Consulate, where eligible immigrants will get free help applying for citizenship and accessing fee waivers.
Millions of dollars in city revenue
Yotin Srivanjarean, a newly naturalized immigrant from Thailand, said becoming a U.S. citizen allowed him to travel freely.
“When I was a green card holder, every time I would come back to the United States from visiting my family in Thailand, I always felt uneasy, with the immigration officer asking me a lot of questions,” he said. “Now I have a sense of belonging. I am no longer Thai; I am Thai American.”
But the city itself also benefits when more immigrants become U.S. citizens.
Helping more immigrants naturalize increases their economic contributions to the city, according to Cardona of the Atlanta Mayor’s Office and Welcoming Atlanta.
“As newly naturalized citizens, they have contributed $19 million from their income to the city of Atlanta, and $7 million from their taxes,” said Cardona.
Many have become business owners. Immigrants and refugees own 52 businesses in the city, she said.
For Rachel Bol, who lost almost everything to war, becoming a U.S. citizen meant being able to reunite her family and get everything back.
“I never went to school, [so my English was not very good]. All I knew was to work,” she said. “But I didn’t feel alone during my application. This is the happiest period of my life.”
The Atlanta New Americans Campaign is supported in part by the Sapelo Foundation. Atlanta’s free naturalization workshop takes place at the Consulate General of Mexico, 1700 Chantilly Drive NE, Atlanta, GA 30324. Appointments are required. Register here: bit.ly/citizenshipjune17. For information, call 888-54GALEO.
For more information about the national New Americans Campaign and upcoming citizenship workshops in your city, go to www.newamericanscampaign.org.