Nearly $1 million awarded to Pennsylvania groups helping immigrants become citizens

October 13, 2022 WITF By Anthony Orozco

Ryan Breisch says he’s come to learn what becoming an American means to some people.

“Being an American citizen is the dream for many people in the world,” Breisch said. “You know, that’s the pinnacle of people’s lives for many individuals.”

Now, his organization and others are empowered to bring that milestone to many more in the commonwealth.

“We’re happy that we can help at least 200 people over the next two years achieve that dream,” Breisch said.

Breisch is the executive director of the Literacy Council of Reading-Berks, which recently received the largest grant in its nearly six decades of existence – a quarter of a million dollars.

The money is part of $20 million in grants from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, specifically for citizenship instruction, community integration for refugees and building community networks for groups focused on naturalization.

The $250,000 for the Literacy Council will go toward the literacy council’s citizenship instruction courses. Classes are four hours a week for 12 weeks. Aspiring immigrants learn American history, geography, holidays and the structure of the U.S. government in the United States.

All of those subjects are woven around the English skills that are needed to pass the verbal and written citizenship test.

The grant will also fund a new program in which Reading-based immigration lawyers from ALDEA–the People’s Justice Center will help students navigate the citizenship process.

“This is a big deal for the literacy council because we’ve been providing citizenship instruction since the 1980s, however, we have not been able to have the legal aspect to the services,” Breisch said. “And that’s what makes this program wonderful and different from what we have done in the past.”

The Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13 and Jewish Family & Community Services of Pittsburgh are also each receiving grants of $300,000 for citizenship instruction and application services, according to USCIS.

Jamie Englert is the director of immigration services for Jewish Family & Community Services of Pittsburgh. She said that the journey to become a citizen is not easy or quick for lawful permanent residents.

Other than civics testing, the applications cost more than $700, the processing time can take the better part of a year, and any errors on applications can make for serious setbacks for applicants, she said.

“JFCF’s mission is to help people through changes and challenges,” Englert said. “So we are excited to help immigrants in western Pennsylvania achieve the American dream and become citizens.”

There are around 74,285 foreign born residents in Allegheny County; 28,000 in Lancaster County; 32,000 in Berks County; and 5,700 in Lebanon County, according to 2021 U.S. American Community Survey data.

USCIS Director Ur M. Jaddou said the investment of millions of dollars across the country helps empower aspiring citizens.

“We are committed to educating remote, underserved and vulnerable populations about the benefits of citizenship, and about the naturalization process,” Jaddou said in a written statement. “Through the USCIS grants program, we ensure that community organizations can equip immigrants with the tools they need to be successful throughout their journey to become new U.S. citizens and beyond.”

Breisch noted that often in the lead-up to elections, politicians will focus on immigration. But Breisch says this investment toward new Americans is something that exemplifies national pride.

“What better way to celebrate America than welcoming people into this country who want to become American citizens?” Breisch said. “I don’t think there’s anything more patriotic or American than helping individuals who want to become citizens of our great country.”

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