Updated: Aug 12, 2020
Naturalize Charlotte aims to help Charlotte’s refugee and immigrant community tackle a challenging task: that of becoming a United States citizen.
Ms. Prieto entered my tenth grade Spanish classroom with tears in her eyes. She had just arrived back on campus from her naturalization ceremony; she had just become a United States citizen. Ms. Prieto described to my class the strength she felt when saying the Oath of Allegiance and the sense of accomplishment she felt when she gazed upon the American flag. But she also touched on something else: how complicated the naturalization process had been for her. Ms. Prieto shared that she had almost given up on her quest to become a citizen.
In order to become a United States citizen, she had to defeat mounds of paperwork, the bureaucratic machine, and a process that was seemingly designed to overwhelm. She showed me the complex forms and eligibility requirements that she had met and completed with the help of an immigration attorney. As Ms. Prieto shared her struggle with me, I understood that some of the difficulties she had experienced to become a citizen were unnecessary impediments.
Increasingly global, Mecklenburg County is home to an estimated 21,659 residents who are likely eligible for naturalization. Like Ms. Prieto, those seeking to become citizens of the United States face a daunting process that includes complex eligibility requirements, labyrinthine paperwork, and a citizenship interview that can be intimidating. Inspired by Ms. Prieto’s story, I sought out possible solutions to help alleviate some of the process’s unnecessary challenges. Many of those challenges centered around navigating existing information and resources, so I sought to brainstorm ways that details about the process and assistance for those applying could be better distributed and advertised to residents applying for citizenship.
My brainstorming concluded with an idea to develop a multilingual website titled Naturalize Charlotte. Throughout the two-and-a-half year process to create and launch the website, its vision expanded to meet three goals: to connect those on the path to citizenship to information and nonprofit organizations, to build unity and communication between Charlotte’s naturalization-focused nonprofits, and to promote volunteerism and awareness of the benefits of immigration and naturalization. I took my idea to City Hall and successfully pitched the website to a committee managed by the City of Charlotte’s International Relations Office that consisted of representatives from city government and USCIS along with the representatives and executive directors of Charlotte’s naturalization-focused nonprofit organizations. This committee, which was titled the Charlotte Naturalization Group, supported my idea and would eventually become the Naturalize Charlotte Group.
I brought my brother William on board as my co-founder to help execute and expand upon my initial vision. Backed by the City of Charlotte and nonprofit organizations, we were empowered to implement our plan to catalyze lasting change. Along with spending countless hours developing the website, the two-and-a-half year process included more meetings with government officials and nonprofit leaders. These meetings, where we met individually with representatives from each Naturalize Charlotte member organization, proved to be defining moments in the creation of the website. Each organization brought feedback from different areas of expertise.
For example, the Executive Director of International House provided valuable legal feedback, while Ms. LaPlante at Central Piedmont Community College advised on how to use iconography to make the website more accessible for applicants who are still learning English. Organizations like the Latin American Coalition and the Southeast Asian Coalition provided feedback from the perspective of the communities they represented, which proved to be valuable as we translated the website into nine different languages. Meeting multiple times with Mr. Knutson, the USCIS Community Relations Officer for our region, we went through each step of the naturalization process to ensure accuracy on the website. We were meeting with experts who had sometimes gone through the naturalization process themselves, and we used their feedback to further the effectiveness of the website. Each meeting was educational and had a footprint not only on the finished website but also on my understanding of the city I live in.
At the website’s launch event, William and I invited three panelists to share their experience with the naturalization process and why becoming a citizen was important for each of them. One of the panelists was Thakur Mishra from Carolina Refugee Resettlement Agency. When it was Mr. Mishra's turn to speak, he narrated his story of arriving in the United States from Nepalese refugee camps after escaping Bhutan. He told the audience that becoming a US Citizen meant that he belonged and how he had the power to contribute to the country he now calls home. Mr. Mishra’s powerful story was one out of many William and I had been impacted by while working on the Naturalize Charlotte website.
My work on the website started with Ms. Prieto’s story of becoming a US Citizen, and the experience of experts with firsthand experience with the naturalization process, like Mr. Mishra, helped shape the website into what it is today. This collaborative process of building the Naturalize Charlotte website developed my perspective of the city that I live in. Charlotte is a thriving hub for new Americans and international businesses, but this did not happen by accident; it happened due to the tremendous efforts of an engaged international community. I am so glad that I got involved and I encourage you to find opportunities of your own using the Naturalize Charlotte website's volunteering page, which allows you to connect with nonprofits working in Charlotte's international community.