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Eleven years ago, Alma and her daughter Luz left Mexico to reunite with their husband and father in California. They built a life for themselves in the Napa Valley and became active members of their community, supporting their neighbors whenever they could. But they wanted to do more: They wanted to make their voice heard and have a say in the future of their community. As immigrants, however, they weren’t allowed to vote. And so their wish to contribute led them, in early 2018, to apply for naturalization.

A year later, mother and daughter took their Oath of Citizenship together, deeply proud of one another, and of their new status. Alma later shared, “I feel like the same person that I was as a Green Card holder – and I believe that everyone is equal in this country, regardless of their immigration status. But now I feel that my voice counts, with the right to vote, and I feel more secure without the fear of deportation. So now I can speak up for other immigrants, and help them feel more secure, too.”

About 32,000 Napa County residents, roughly 23 percent of the population, are foreign-born. According to the Migration Policy institute, a little less than a third of them are naturalized citizens, like Alma and Luz. Another 12,000 are Legal Permanent Residents, or Green Card holders – and many of them may be eligible for citizenship, too.

Naturalization comes with significant benefits, and research shows that it can make a transformative difference for the well-being of immigrant families. As Alma said, Green Card holders can’t vote, or run for elected office – even if they are still bound by the same obligations as citizens to pay their taxes and abide by the law. Citizenship, then, gives people a voice in matters that impact their lives, and allows them to contribute more fully to the health and improvement of their communities.

Naturalization confers other benefits, too. For example, a job with the federal government opens the door to a stable career – but only citizens are eligible. Likewise, some government benefits, forms of federal aid, and many college scholarships are only available to citizens. Naturalization also offers much more freedom of movement: Permanent residents have the right to live and work in the U.S., but can’t spend extended time outside of the country without risking the loss of their green card. And last but not least, citizenship adds an additional layer of protection against deportation, creating a sense of long-term stability and safety for immigrant families.

Yet not everyone who is eligible actually decides to move forward with the process. The Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration at the University of Southern California estimates that as many as 49 percent of immigrants in Napa County who are eligible for citizenship are unlikely to apply. Even Alma and Luz, who were so excited to become citizens, waited 10 years before they sought naturalization – even though they would have been eligible much sooner.

Immigrants hesitate for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the cost: The USCIS filing fee for a naturalization application is $725. Add to that the cost of a lawyer or consultant—because the application process can also be daunting, and a little assistance can sometimes make the difference between success and denial. The naturalization process involves an interview in which a USCIS representative reviews your personal history, your record as an immigrant, your family connections, and more. Applicants are also tested on their knowledge of the U.S. government and history – and, of course, their command of English. That’s a scary prospect, even for someone who speaks English fluently; scary enough that it keeps some immigrants from applying altogether.

Other factors that might keep someone from starting the process might be a fear of exposing undocumented family members, for example, or simply a fear of one’s application being denied for some reason – maybe you have a misdemeanor on your record, or maybe you’re afraid USCIS will find something in your past that you didn’t even know might be an issue – inadvertent underpayment on your taxes, an old parking ticket, or too much travel outside of the U.S. In addition, some immigrants might have learned inaccurate information about who is eligible for naturalization, and may not realize they even have the option.

But because naturalization comes with so many benefits, immigration advocates and other organizations in Napa are working hard to encourage those who are eligible to apply, to offer support to those who do, and to make sure that all of our immigrant neighbors have accurate information about the process and requirements.

In 2013, a group of nonprofits from across the county began working together to help more immigrants feel secure and engaged in the future of their community by creating pathways to citizenship. With support from the Napa Valley Community Foundation’s One Napa Valley Initiative, they created the Napa Citizenship Legal Services Collaborative, or CLS – and in its five years of operation, the collaborative has helped 1,545 people apply for naturalization, 1,077 of whom are now U.S. Citizens.

As part of the CLS collaborative, the UpValley Family Centers offers a variety of immigration services, including assistance with the naturalization process. We host free workshops and classes to provide accurate and up-to-date information about the benefits of citizenship, what to expect from the naturalization process, immigrant rights, changes to local and federal immigration policies, and resources that may be available to help them.

We provide one-on-one consultations to help people determine their eligibility, and help them file their naturalization paperwork. Once their application is officially submitted, we offer a citizenship class to help applicants prepare for their interview and civics exam. And thanks to a group of committed volunteers, we offer each applicant a personal tutor who can help make sure that they can answer every single question posed by the USCIS officer with absolute confidence.

Our next citizenship application workshop takes place in Calistoga on Tuesday, June 11. If you would like to register, or if you are interested in learning more about our immigration services, please call us at (707) 965-5010 or stop by our office.

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