Juneau office established to aid immigrants

Posted: Sunday, June 20, 2004

JUNEAU It took about 10 minutes for Nenelyn Benalosa to take her citizenship tests, but it cost her a $500 trip to Anchorage to do it.

It was the final step in a journey that began in 1995, when she and her family moved to Juneau from the Philippines.

Benalosa, 25, had help along the way from family and friends in the Juneau Filipino community who had also become U.S. citizens. But she, like many other immigrants, spent hundreds of dollars in fees and travel costs and hours dealing with bureaucratic formalities.

''I think it's the best idea to have somebody that would be able to help all those immigrants that are in the process of applying for citizenship,'' she said.

Rafael Castanos, a Juneau resident who emigrated from the Philippines in 1994, began lobbying the Legislature in 2001 to open an office in Juneau to assist legal immigrants seeking citizenship. He said many immigrants also need help finding work, health care and understanding their legal rights.

It costs $570 to apply for citizenship and, Castanos said, those who are rejected often have to pay again to reapply.

Benalosa said she knows of some who have applied several times. When Castanos went through the naturalization process in the mid-1990s, the only assistance available was in Anchorage and Ketchikan, he said.

At one point, he said, he called the Ketchikan immigration office four days in a row without getting through.

A federal bureaucratic shuffle in 2003 resulted in the Department of Homeland Security assuming the duties of the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service. The Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services was established to handle citizenship cases.

Benalosa got her citizenship last year. But like Castanos, she said she made repeated calls to the immigration services office in Anchorage but was put on hold.

''The 1-800 number is ... not good,'' she said. ''Sometimes I had to ask my sister to call them because I just got tired.''

Castanos said the Juneau Office of Citizenship Assistance, within the state Department of Labor, helps prospective citizens begin new lives in America.

The office was first established by the Legislature in 2001 but has struggled for funding every year since.

House Bill 379 by Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, R-Juneau, establishes a permanent office in Juneau. The bill was passed this year by the Legislature.

''It's a symbol of the state's interest in people who want to become citizens,'' Weyhrauch said. ''It's there to help them through the maze of private sector and public sector bureaucracy.''

Weyhrauch said he also is working with Alaska's congressional delegation to open a federal immigration office in Juneau.

Immigration officers travel once a year or so from Anchorage to Juneau, making it difficult for local immigrants to take a mandatory civics test and writing test, according to Salvador Lumba, head of the Juneau Office of Citizenship Assistance.

He said immigrants who miss the visit must wait another year or travel to Anchorage to take the tests.

Benalosa missed the test in May 2002 because she went to the Philippines to visit her family and then-fiance Roberto Benalosa, 35. Eight months later, she flew to Anchorage to take the tests and complete the process her mother and sisters finished.

It is not the only struggle her family members have faced in becoming citizens. One of Benalosa's sisters, when she turned 18, had to restart the application process she began with her mother and sisters.

''Immigration then said she had to file her own paperwork,'' Benalosa said. ''It would have been automatic with her mother, but she became an adult.''

Lumba, who has headed the citizenship assistance office since last year, said he hears similar problems daily. Recently, he helped a client with an expired tourist visa and another with a lost green card.

Lumba, Benalosa's uncle, emigrated from the Philippines in 1974.

He said immigration standards have tightened since Sept. 11, 2001.

The citizenship application fee increased to $570 from $315 in April. Lumba said each family member must pay.

When Lumba became a citizen 30 years ago, the application was free.

''That was easy at that time,'' he said.



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