By Tatiana Flowers for Greenwich Time
GREENWICH — After a months-long search, a Greenwich-based human services organization has hired an immigration attorney to assist with the growing demand from clients who are making their way along the path toward U.S. citizenship.
Melanie Zamenhof began working one-on-one with clients of Barbara's House at the nonprofit’s office over the summer. Twice per month on Sundays, she said she is there to help clients understand “where they stand, what their options are, and if there are services that we can provide to them to help meet their goals, whatever that might be, for immigration status.”
In the sessions, Zamenhof said she learns about the unique life circumstances of each client and how it determines their eligibility for citizenship. Then, she often helps them file any relevant applications.
“Melanie’s knowledge and skills and continuous self-education about immigration law and immigration status changes is something we were never able to offer clients until now,” said Gaby Rattner, executive director at Barbara's House, who said there has long been a demand for such legal services.
For a decade, Barbara's House has offered English as a second language courses and citizenship workshops. The move to hire Zamenhof came after the Greenwich Department of Human Services noticed it had more clients asking for immigration counseling services than it could help.
Citizenship class at Barbara's House. Courtesy of CCI Greenwich. “Quantitatively, in the two months of this summer alone, we’ve seen I think over 25 people … and more coming,” Rattner said. “And I keep hearing ... how grateful everybody is that we now have this and that they’re telling other people to come.”
“The need was always there, but there was a greater degree of concern about seeking help, even from trustworthy sources, and less clarity on what help was available, and less help actually being available. So, all of that has changed for the better in the past several months,” she said.
On average annually, three Barbara's House clients obtain U.S. citizenship with the organization’s help, Rattner said. But even with those successes, the process is complex, Zamenhof added.
The demand for citizenship services has grown, with more people seeking help under the Biden administration which is more welcoming to immigrants, she said. Laws shifted under President Joe Biden, Zamenhof said, creating a renewed demand for her assistance in navigating the immigration process. “It’s just very complex and complicated, and it’s very much tied to case law and arguably what administration you’re sitting in,” Zamenhof said.
Under the Trump administration, the citizenship test was made more difficult, she said, with test-takers required to answer up to 20 questions, compared to the current 10-question test under Biden. “There’s now less obstacles in the path, not that there still aren’t too many in my opinion,” Zamenhof said.
She and Rattner are reaching out to the community to spread awareness of the new service.
“It is also helpful when people understand that this service is free for Barbara's House clients, and it’s confidential,” Zamenhof said. “What they tell me in a confidential client intake meeting is not something that is even shared to the upper levels of Barbara's House or to any other organization or person or agency.”
Barbara's House received “generous” funding from the Greenwich Department of Human Services and from Community Development Block Grants to fund Zamenhof’s services, Rattner said, which the immigration attorney is offering at a low cost. Barbara's House leaders hope their outreach will generate more clients and funding streams.
Barbara's House leaders said they’re interested in collaborating with other human service leaders in town to help more people realize their dream of citizenship.
There’s no limit on how long or how many times a person can seek the organization’s help to prepare for the citizenship test, Rattner said.
“You come to us; we help you get the skills you need. When you’re ready to take the test, if for any reason you don’t pass, you come back and work with us until you’re ready to try again — or whatever it takes,” she said.
To donate to the program or to Barbara's House or to join as a client seeking a path to citizenship, call 203-869-1276, email [email protected], or visit the Barbara's House website.
[email protected] @TATIANADFLOWERS