Amid kudos and controversy following President Barack Obama’s Nov. 20 directive stalling deportation for up to 5 million undocumented immigrants — allowing many to work legally — Tommy Fred Taye became a U.S. citizen.
“I never knew that it was Jewish people who were bringing me here,” Taye, now 36, told the AJP. “I didn’t know that Jewish Family & Children’s Services was my agency.”
Taye, who was in a Liberian refugee camp for more than a year, was brought to Tucson by JFCS on March 23, 2004. He applied for a green card the following year with his wife, Bennetta Grant, and his daughter Secret Taye. His wife and daughter received their green cards quickly and became citizens in 2012. Taye’s citizenship process was continually delayed.
In 2010, his application was still pending, says local immigration attorney Maurice Goldman, adding that “many refugees have their cases held up by the government to make sure they’re not involved in any terrorist organizations.” Taye’s application was taking a particularly long time.
Goldman prepared a writ of mandamus, which threatened to sue the government if an interview wasn’t scheduled, and sent it to the U.S. attorney’s office in Phoenix. Taye had already contacted the offices of U.S. Reps. James Kolbe and Gabrielle Giffords numerous times. Still, there was no action on his case.
“Had I not prepared that writ, who knows how long it would have taken? Tommy still could be waiting,” notes Goldman, adding that Taye soon received his green card, which was backdated to 2004.
In 2008, the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona participated in a Habitat for Humanity build for Taye and his family. (See www.habitattucson.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/01/tzedek-build-az-jewish-post.pdf)
“I had worked on the Habitat build and met Tommy at that time,” says Goldman. “I remember thinking, ‘what a great guy.’ I couldn’t think of a more deserving person. Stu [Mellan, CEO of the Federation] later contacted me” to help Taye. Goldman handled the case pro bono.
“Tommy had to save up the $680 for naturalization, so he filed in 2012. They held up his case for another two years,” until he received his notice on Nov. 6, says Goldman. “Tommy’s case is a good example of how difficult it is to navigate our bureaucracy. You need to have someone to help you.”
On Nov. 21, Taye was among 51 immigrants from 18 countries who became citizens at the naturalization ceremony of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services at Tucson’s Evo A. Deconcini U.S. Courthouse, United States District Court.
During the time for open remarks from new citizens, Taye proudly strode to the podium at the front of the auditorium with his wife and daughter looking on.
“I want to thank the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona and JFCS,” said Taye. “I consider them to be my American Jewish family.”
Mellan, who attended the ceremony, said, “This was my first naturalization ceremony — and it reminded me just how appreciated citizenship in the country is. And of course it warmed my heart to hear Tommy take the mic and declare publicly that the Jewish community is his family here. What a thrill to be there and celebrate with him.” Goldman had planned to be there but was invited to Las Vegas to be present for the president’s immigration announcement.
“Having a house gave me the confidence to be an American,” said Taye, who now works full-time as a modern streetcar operator. At the conclusion of the Nov. 21 ceremony, Taye said tearfully, “I’m so happy to be a citizen. I will apply to have my three children come over. It’s not easy. I’m still going to need your help.”