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“190 thousand permanent residents are eligible to legalize in Santa Clara County,” said Vanessa Sandoval, Director of Immigration Legal Services for Services, Immigrant Rights, Education Network or SIREN at the first ethnic media immigration roundtable.Ethnic media and community organizers were invited to participate in an immigration roundtable on Friday, Jan. 17 in San Jose. The roundtable hosted by New American Media, New American Campaign, SIREN, and the National Immigration forum, focused on helping Bay Area immigrants become citizens.
The speakers featured were from local organizations: SIREN, Silicon Valley De-Bug, Asian Law Alliance (ALA), Self Help for the Elderly, International Rescue Committee (IRC), and the Bethlehem Project. Sandoval said of those 190 thousand eligible only eight percent take the steps needed to naturalize. The New American Campaign aims to reduce the barriers for people to naturalize. The main barrier cited in the discussion is cost.
The U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) naturalization application fee is $680. Sandoval said for those on fixed incomes the application fee could be the equivalent of a month’s income.“Most of the clients that come to our offices and to our events qualify for the immigration fee waiver,” said Bea Pangilinan of the ALA. “That means that their incomes fall well below the U.S poverty level.”
Private attorneys and other legal services may charge up to thousands of dollars for immigration services. The New American campaign saved clients over a half a million dollars by providing them with the USCIS fee waiver, a waiver that they said “most do not even know exists.”“Another barrier that we see is just a general fear. They [eligible permanent residents] don’t know what to expect when they naturalize, they don’t know what documents to produce,” said Pangilinan.
At a previous event, Pangilinan met a woman who received her green card in the 60s yet had not applied to naturalize because she was unsure of what resources are available and what the process entailed. The speakers also said another reason for not naturalizing is the misconception that permanent residency status is permanent.
“If you leave the country for more than 6 months at a time you can abandon your residency and lose your status. If you commit certain crimes you can be deported,” said Sandoval. “Even though we call it permanent residency it’s most definitely not permanent in the sense that it can be revoked.”
Amir Music, Senior Immigration Coordinator for the IRC said, “The biggest challenge is lack of information. They just don’t know about the possibilities.” One possibility that Music referred to is the option of taking the naturalization exam in a native language if the permanent resident has been in the country for many years.
“One of the huge barriers to citizenship is that you have to be competent in English, you have to take an English exam, you’re actually questioned, you’re interviewed, you’re interrogated by an USCIS officer” said Sandoval. The campaign provides CDs, the 100 exam questions to make exam takers feel “empowered and prepared for their interview.”
“Citizenship is what empowers people to become full fledged members of their communities, to contribute and to participate, not only in voting. But we have seen that naturalized citizens have become much more motivated, have less fear, and participate in their local community,” said Sandoval.
The next event hosted by the New American Campaign is a Free Citizenship workshop Wednesday Jan. 29 at the Berryessa Community Center, 3050 Berryessa Rd. in San Jose.