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Citizen Academy

A new program teaches immigrants about basic city services.



Legal immigrants living in Memphis are often inundated with misinformation on how to apply for citizenship or navigate city services. But a new project will provide better direction.

"The push is to increase awareness and educate the community around naturalization. That helps you have a stronger voice on what happens in your community," said Nika Jackson, manager of the city's Office of Multicultural Affairs.

Memphis was one of a handful of cities chosen by the National League of Cities (NLC) for the NewCITYzen Naturalization Campaign and the New American Citizens' Academy.

"We were looking for a city the size of Memphis in the South, a city with a very proactive leadership and a growing immigrant community," said Ricardo Gambetta, NLC's program manager for immigrant integration.

Though Memphis is home to many undocumented immigrants, this program is aimed at immigrants who already have residency status but haven't decided to become naturalized citizens. NCL is funding the campaign and will begin airing public service announcements on how to become a citizen this week.

Once residents begin the naturalization process, they'll be eligible to attend Memphis 101-style workshops with the New American Citizens Academy.

"They'll learn everything there is to know about city government, as well as how to request help from police or the fire department," Jackson said.

Though NLC designs the New Citizen Academy curriculum, it's tailored to fit each individual city. Jackson says the first class will take place before the end of the year.

Mauricio Calvo of Latino Memphis supports the program and may help facilitate a few of the academy workshops. But he did express some concern that media campaigns to encourage naturalization might mislead some immigrants.

"This campaign has to be careful about the message, so that people don't think all they have to do to become a citizen is enroll into this program. That's not how it works," Calvo said. "There are some people for whom the first step [to residency status] does not exist."

Jackson hopes the program also brings greater acceptance of the immigrant community from the city at large.

"I want the community to understand that the immigrant population is made up of so many different faces — people from Mexico, Canada, Germany, Africa," Jackson said. "Too often, people view immigrants as competition, but we want to start working collaboratively to create a city of choice."

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