The issue of immigration is too often reduced to a false dichotomy between U.S. citizens and people who enter the country illegally.
That leaves out a large segment of the local population that plays a crucial role in our economy and our community: the approximately 8,000 to 9,000 people who are living legally in the Napa Valley on green cards.
Encouraging those people to become full-fledged citizens is the laudable goal of Napa County Citizenship Legal Services (NCCLS), a collaboration of the International Institute of the Bay Area, On the Move, Puertas Abiertas and the UpValley Family Centers.
Representatives from all four nonprofits met with our editorial board last week to explain their program. We were impressed with their knowledge of immigration law, their outreach efforts to roughly 60,000 Napa County residents, and their track record of helping 839 green card-holders become U.S. citizens since the program’s inception in 2013.
Before 2013, only about 10 Napa County residents per year were completing the citizenship process. The increase over the last few years can be attributed to the intensifying immigration debate at the national level — especially since the 2016 election season — and the NCCLS’ efforts to promote the benefits of citizenship.
Becoming a citizen gives you the right to vote, incentivizes elected officials to earn your vote, and gives you a deeper, more meaningful investment in the community. It also frees you from the burden of paying a fee to renew your green card every five years.
Around 80 or 90 percent of the newly minted citizens hail from Mexico, where young people generally revere their elders as mentors and life coaches. The NCCLS has capitalized on that cultural tendency by aiming their message at adults and seniors and counting on them to transmit it to their children and grandchildren who are also green card-holders, and who are not already citizens by virtue of birth.
Touting the benefits of citizenship also requires overcoming cultural barriers and dispelling a few misconceptions. No, you don’t have to renounce your Mexican citizenship or forfeit your right to return there from time to time. Yes, there is a fee, but you might be able to get a waiver. Yes, you can take the civics test in Spanish if you meet certain qualifications.
To apply for citizenship, you’ll need to have had a green card for five years, meet certain residency requirements, and pass a fairly rigorous test about U.S. history and civics. A few of the questions are gimmes, but others would challenge even a natural-born American. (When was the Constitution written? Nope, not 1776.)
NCCLS is there to help with each phase of the process: making sure applicants are eligible for citizenship, helping them apply, figuring out whether they’re eligible for a fee waiver, and getting them ready for the test.
Not all nonprofit collaborations are successful, but this one seems like a model, with each group working toward one shared goal. People at the regional level train local personnel in Napa and the Upvalley, who pass on that knowledge to would-be citizens.
If there are internecine turf wars, they’re not obvious and they’re not detracting from the program’s success. The statistics quoted above speak for themselves: A good 10 percent of the eligible population of green card-holders have become citizens since 2013, and more are in the pipeline.
The main challenge is getting people to sign up. The groups have done a good job so far in reaching out to workers and their employers, and we encourage them to extend those efforts.
Their partnership with the Napa Valley Grapegrowers is a good start, but they should also approach the Napa Valley Vintners, individual wineries, and the hospitality industry. Employers who depend on a stable, trustworthy workforce have every reason to promote citizenship among their employees. Maybe they could be convinced to cover application fees, award bonuses, or provide flexible work schedules so workers can attend citizenship classes.
When people become citizens, it pays dividends for them, their families, their employers, their communities, and our democracy. Everybody wins.
Editorial board member Norma Ferriz, who works for the UpValley Family Centers, did not contribute to this editorial.