238 E Alder St, Walla Walla
Walla Walla Public Library
Walla Walla Representatives from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service held a session at the Walla Walla Public Library Monday night to offer information on becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen.
The event featured two representatives from USCIS, an agency within the Department of Homeland Security that oversees applications for permanent residency and naturalization. Though their field office is in Spokane, Field Officer Director Diana Wolder said that her office frequently travels to provide information around Eastern Washington.
"We're trying to be more accessible," she said.
Any legal permanent resident who has lived in the U.S. for at least five years may apply for naturalization, and certain criteria make some legal residents eligible earlier. Still, the process itself often seems daunting, and requires filling out a lengthy form, being interviewed by a USCIS officer and passing a civics test.
"(These sessions) are a helping hand," said Sharon Rummery, the public affairs officer for USCIS. "Many people feel intimidated by going to the interview which is part of the citizenship process."
Supervisory Immigrations Officer Ken Bawden, who also presented, explained that sessions like this help clear up misconceptions about things that might disqualify people from citizenship.
For example, although the paperwork for naturalization includes a number of questions about the applicant's criminal record, a previous conviction does not necessarily make someone ineligible.
"There are a lot of people who have been arrested for DUI and think that automatically disqualifies them, and that's not the case," he said. Bawden said that generally, only aggravated felonies result in automatic disqualification.
Because naturalization was once overseen by the former Immigration and Naturalization Service, an agency that also did law enforcement, Wolder explained that some undocumented immigrants are afraid to seek advice from USCIS because they fear deportation.
"We are not a law enforcement agency. We don't have arrest authority," she said. Immigration and Customs Enforcement oversees enforcement of immigration laws, and is completely separate from USCIS.
Bawden warned that some people try to profit off of immigrants by taking their money in exchange for the promise of expedited services, or setting up fraudulent websites that resemble sites run by the U.S. government.
"There's a lot of fraud going on out there," he said.
Bawden and Wolder encouraged residents with questions about naturalization or other immigration processes to contact their office in Spokane for assistance or go to uscis.gov.