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Charlotte Groups Team Up To Help Legal Immigrants Become Citizens

About 100 immigrants in Charlotte took a big step toward becoming U.S. citizens Sunday. They’re all legal residents. And as part of a national campaign, three local groups teamed up at UNC Charlotte to help them apply for citizenship.

The main thing that’s kept Hing Fu and his family from trying to become U.S. citizens is the cost.

"We are below the poverty line at the moment," Fu said.

He's a senior at UNC Charlotte. He and his mom emigrated from Hong Kong more than a decade ago, and his stepdad is from Mexico.

He says they didn’t realize they may be able to waive the $680 fee for each application until they talked to the director of the Southeast Asian Coalition.

"We wanted to become naturalized and we had financial troubles, so she referred this to us," Fu said.

"This" was a free workshop Sunday on becoming a citizen. About 100 immigrants took part. Not all needed financial help, but they all had questions about how to move forward. 

"OK, so you're going to sign here before you send this in," Beckie Moriello said. She was one of several lawyers offering free legal advice. She took Fu’s family step-by-step through their applications.

"All right, have you ever claimed to be a U.S. Citizen?," Moriello asked Fu's mom, who shook her head. "OK. You've filed taxes every single year since you became a resident?"

The application also goes through where you’ve lived, worked, vacationed, gone to school. It also checks whether you’ve been arrested or detained. And then there's a question Moriello likes to have some fun with.

"Do you have any title of nobility in any foreign country, for example as a princess or a duchess?" Moriello asked as Fu's mom laughed and said no.

"I always joke," Moriello continued with a laugh," if they were, they probably wouldn't have left."

Kidding aside, it’s a daunting process. Fu and his family spent more than four hours going over their applications and making sure they’re eligible to waive the fees because of their income.

"A lot of folks don’t know that that option is available, so a lot of what we’ve been doing is really educating the community," said Cat Bao Le. She's the director of the Southeast Asian Coalition, which teamed up with the Latin American Coalition and Catholic Social Services to put on the workshop.

It’s part of a national movement called the New Americans Campaign, which focuses on eight major cities with large numbers of legal immigrants.

"The reason Charlotte was selected is because there’s a very high amount of legal permanent residents here in Mecklenburg County, basically there’s over 15,000," Bao Le said.

At the workshop, there were people from Southeast Asia, East Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe.

While they were taking another step toward citizenship, just one floor below, 12 immigrants were taking the last step.

"Raise your right hands candidates for citizenship, and repeat after me," said an official from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. "I hereby declare on oath…"

It was the first time USCIS held a naturalization ceremony at UNC Charlotte. As the 12 immigrants from eight different countries said their last words before becoming Americans, a few teared up, and all broke out in applause when they finished the oath.

It was a moment 11 years in the making for Martha Lucia Agudelo and her husband, who were granted political asylum from Colombia.

"We left everything in our country – jobs, house, family – and we came directly to Charlotte with no English," Agudelo said. "Then we were granted political asylum. We wait five years to get our green card, and then we have to wait five more years to get our citizenship."

"But we are so happy and proud to be American," she said.