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Local organization to ramp up citizenship prep for immigrants

Marie Duteau of Turners Falls emigrated from Haiti to the United States 31 years ago.  Now she is helping others gain citizenship.  Recorder/Paul Franz

Marie Duteau of Turners Falls emigrated from Haiti to the United States 31 years ago. Now she is helping others gain citizenship. Recorder/Paul Franz

TURNERS FALLS — Marie Duteau was 22 when she moved from Haiti to the United States, and in the three decades since then she’s built a family, career and life here.

But it wasn’t until October 2012, when the Turners Falls resident saw a sign for the Center for New Americans’ Greenfield office, that she seriously considered applying to become a citizen.

The organization helped her fill out forms and prepare for her citizenship test. She passed the test last spring, became a citizen in June and — nearly bursting with excitement — registered to vote as soon as she could.

The Center for New Americans will use a $250,000 federal grant over the next two years to ramp up its ability to help other immigrants in Franklin and Hampshire counties — people, like Duteau, who are authorized to live and work in this country but who have yet to become citizens.

With help from grant partner Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, the local organization will train about 115 immigrants for their citizenship tests and help about 350 submit citizenship applications.

“No one else is doing this in Franklin County,” said Russell Bradbury-Carlin, the organization’s executive director. “There are a lot of folks who could become citizens but haven’t for various reasons.”

It’s unclear the number of legal permanent residents living in Franklin County who are eligible to apply for citizenship. State and federal organizations have a statewide number — about 200,000, according to the United States Department of Homeland Security — but do not break it down by county or town.

Duteau said the amount of paperwork needed to apply for citizenship seemed daunting. Until that fall day when she walked into the Center for New Americans’ office, she said she had no idea there was a local organization that would be able to help her — and at no cost to her.

The local organization is using the grant to hire a coordinator and train volunteers. That group, including Duteau, will then in turn help people fill out forms and prepare for their citizenship tests.

The 100-question test features questions about the country’s history, its laws and rights and responsibilities of being a citizen, said Duteau. Once she started attending free tutoring sessions at the center, the studying went fairly smoothly, she said.

Bradbury-Carlin said the organization is currently seeking volunteers and will then host training sessions over the next few months so that they can learn the test material.

In addition to helping people at sites in Greenfield, Turners Falls, Amherst and Northampton, Bradbury-Carlin anticipates setting up events in the community on different days throughout the year. People could come and receive help in a single day with all of the forms they need to fill out.

For general information or to learn how to sign up for services, contact Marueen McMahon at 413-587-0084 or email info@cnam.org.

Anyone interested in volunteering with the effort should contact Peg Thibbits at the same number or email volunteer@cnam.org.

You can reach Chris Shores at: cshores@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 264

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