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Monday, June 28, 2004

Local News - Last year in Idaho, 630 immigrants chose to become citizens

Local News - The Idaho Statesman - Always Idaho

Idaho recently welcomed 47 new U.S. citizens to the state during a naturalization ceremony at the federal court building in Boise, bringing the total number this year to 431.

Last year in Idaho, 630 immigrants chose to become citizens of the U.S., according to U.S. District Court records.

To aid in assisting others who hope to gain citizenship, the Idaho Network For New Americans, is preparing to host its seventh annual Naturalization Conference July 9 in Boise.

The conference will inform people and agencies that work with immigrants on ways they can assist naturalization applicants and will provide answers to common questions about the naturalization process, organizers said.

Since 1997, INNA has been helping immigrants realize their dream to become U.S. citizens and offering suggestions on how immigrants can become actively involved in their communities.

"Our mission statement is to promote social justice and equality by encouraging the participation of new Americans in the democratic process," conference chair Erik Johnson said. "In the past eight years we have met about every six weeks with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service to try to resolve naturalization and immigration issues.

"The conference is aimed at people who work with immigrants. We will teach them how the naturalization process works from beginning to end," said Johnson, who works at Idaho Legal Aid Services in Caldwell as director of the Migrant Farmworker Law Unit. "In addition to the conference, we have held forums to educate immigrants about important changes in immigration law, and we also have gone on Spanish radio shows for the same purpose."

The conference will explore topics such as: what you need to know before you apply for naturalization; the naturalization interview; when to contact the senator's office; teaching ESL and civics for the naturalization exam; criminal history issues; denials, appeals and when to reapply. The presentations will be followed by a question-and-answer period with naturalization experts.

One such expert is Ernie Hoidal, an INNA presenter and Boise attorney who specializes in helping immigrants apply for citizenship. Last year, he assisted about 100 clients with the naturalization process, which can become complicated.

"You can't owe any taxes or child support or alimony and you want to make sure that you have never registered to vote or voted — only citizens can do that," Hoidal said. "That's one of the things that can cause major problems — when you think you are a citizen and you're not. You also can't be on probation and you can't claim orally or in writing that you are a U.S. citizen.

"People often think that I only deal with people from Mexico or South America, but they (immigrants) come from Eastern Europe, Asia, India — pick a country," he said. "I've done this for almost 28 years, and I bet I've had clients from 125 countries. It's really quite amazing how diverse we really are here in Idaho and where people come from."

The naturalization process generally takes nine to 12 months to complete in Idaho, and the filing fee is $390. Male applicants ages 18-26 are required to register for Selective Service, but sometimes they forget or are unaware of the requirement, Hoidal said.

If the client requests, Hoidal occasionally attends a naturalization ceremony, which can be quite a heartwarming event for those who may have overcome great obstacles, often waiting years, to become a citizen, he said.

"If they have come from someplace where they weren't as fortunate as we are in the United States, they can become very emotional during the ceremonies depending on the circumstances in their lives," Hoidal said. "I know of situations where CIS (Citizenship and Immigration Service) has actually gone to a hospital bed and sworn people in that later passed away or were terminally ill — it's that last thing they want to do — become a citizen."

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