Gutierrez, who has worked as a paralegal and immigration specialist for 23 years, including 15 years with Queens Community House, said she receives hundreds of phone calls and appointments for those concerned about their status.
The most requested services are help with citizenship applications. Many of her clients are permanent residents who are either applying for the first time or attempting to obtain citizenship once again.
Currently, Gutierrez noted the process to apply for a U.S. citizenship is much longer and more expensive than it has been in the past. For example, the fees increased in December from $680 to $725 per application.
Last July, the entire application process took around five months. Now, it takes about seven or eight months to have an interview with an officer, Gutierrez said, with an additional one or two-month wait for the swearing-in ceremony.
The process is likely taking longer because the Department of Homeland Security is receiving more applications.
Many people who visit Gutierrez are permanent residents who are under the misconception that they cannot travel because their home countries were listed in the travel ban.
“There was a rumor that legal permanent residents could have problems traveling, so they started applying for citizenship.” Gutierrez said. “We have to tell them that if there are no problems, like if they don’t spend any extended time outside the U.S. or have any criminal problems, they should be okay.”
Queens resident Diana Segura is originally from Mexico. Her parents brought her to the country when she was nine years old. The nonprofit helped her renew her Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status.
“In our heads we are all Americans, and going to another place we don’t even remember terrifies us,” Segura said. “We want to go forward and be a part of this country that we’ve been a part of our whole lives.”
After she received her DACA status, she was able to find a better job, which helped her pay for school. Segura recently completed a nursing assistance program and is on her way to reaching her goal of being a registered nurse.
An anonymous donor recently gave Queens Community House a $7,500 matching grant to support the increased demand on their free paralegal services.
The nonprofit is in the midst of running a social media and email campaign to meet this match so they can protect more of their immigrant neighbors, communications coordinator Angel Roggie said.
The grant would help applicants with fees, especially those who don’t qualify for fee waivers because of their income.
“It’s nice to help unify families, whether they are parents and children or spouses,” Gutierrez said. “As immigrants, we work hard and a person without legal status needs the legal status to perform fully in this society.”
Bigyan Khanai is originally from Nepal, where he previously worked in the Education Ministry and advocated for human rights for all under his country’s democracy.
“But then the Communist Party from China came in, kidnapping people and killing those who believed in democracy,” he said. “I was kidnapped by the Communists, but I was able to escape.”
After hiding in Nepal for some time, Khanai managed to get a job on an American cruise ship. Once he was in the U.S., he applied for asylum because he knew he would be killed if he went back to Nepal.
Eventually he received a green card and his family was allowed to join him.
Queens Community House helped Khanai become a U.S. citizen, and together they are currently working on getting his wife, mother and children their citizenship as well.
“My daughter got a scholarship to a private high school, and my son has been called gifted and speaks perfect English,” Khanai said. “I can see that my kids will do so much more and that they will work for America.
“Everything I went through is worth it just for that,” he added. “I may be able to use my talents if I get a chance, but I know my kids will do great work.”