As many of you know, we spend a lot of time learning about Napa County's nonprofit sector--we conduct about 200 site visits a year with agencies and programs to hear what they are doing, how they are doing it and what their needs are.
One of our favorite parts of those conversations is getting to know the leaders of local organizations. For instance, hearing about how they landed in the nonprofit sector, what they want the community to know about their work, and why they stick with it. So, we've decided to share highlights of those conversations with you, from time to time, in this newsletter.
We recently talked with Madeline Feldon, who is staff attorney/Napa program director for International Institute of the Bay Area (IIBA).
IIBA provides legal services to immigrants applying for naturalization, or authorization to work or live in the United States. The $2.3-million agency has been helping the Bay Area's immigrants integrate into society for the last 96 years, and has offices in San Francisco, Redwood City, Oakland, Antioch and Fremont.
IIBA's newest office is in Napa, where it has partnered with three other nonprofit agencies to launch Citizenship Legal Services (CLS). CLS is funded by Napa Valley Community Foundation's One Napa Valley Initiative.
CLS launched in July 2013 and offers affordable legal assistance to Green Card holders living or working in Napa County who want to become U.S. citizens. CLS also educates immigrants about the benefits and requirements of naturalization and offers ESL-for-citizenship classes.
Madeline, who is a native Californian, heads up IIBA's Napa office and is the lead staff and immigration attorney for CLS. She is a graduate of Santa Clara University's (SCU) School of Law, and was admitted to The State Bar of California in December 2012. Madeline worked with experienced lawyers before and during law school, helping immigrants who were survivors of human trafficking and domestic violence, as well as asylum seekers. She also has argued an immigration case before the United States Court of Appeals Ninth Circuit.
NVCF: Why did you choose to get into immigration legal services?
Madeline: A lot of reasons. My mom is an immigrant from Panama (she became a U.S. citizen when I was in high school), and my family went to Panama every year to visit, so I always felt very connected to Panama and the Spanish language. Also, I was a privileged kid growing up in Oakland, but I wasn't shielded from seeing a lot of people who were needing help. I always had something inside me that wanted to find a way to help people.
When I was getting my bachelor's degree at U.C. Davis, I knew I wanted to do something in social services, but then I took a criminology class and got very interested in law. I took two years off before going to law school and worked in an orphanage in Argentina. During law school I worked in Costa Rica helping refugee immigrants wanting to seek asylum there, and I also worked at SCU's legal immigration clinic and provided assistance to refugees and asylum seekers wanting to make the United States their permanent home. I loved this work and knew then that I wanted to be an immigration attorney.
NVCF: There are private law firms that specialize in legal immigration services--why work at a nonprofit?
Madeline: I worked for a private immigration attorney toward the end of law school and while studying for the Bar exam, and I enjoyed it a lot. It also was frustrating because many of the people that came in for services couldn't afford them. Private legal immigration services are very expensive--citizenship can cost $1,500 or $2,000, and other services cost up to $10,000 or $15,000. Nonprofits have the ability to offer quality legal immigration services at very affordable rates or at no-cost to very low-income clients.
NVCF: What are the biggest misconceptions non-immigrants have about the naturalization process?
Madeline: The misconception I encounter most is that immigrant, non-citizen parents of U.S. born citizen children automatically get citizenship, which is not the case. There are complex eligibility requirements that non-citizen parents must meet in order to be eligible for naturalization--in other words, having U.S. citizen children does not qualify a parent for citizenship.
NVCF: What about your immigrant clients--what are their biggest misconceptions? Madeline: Most immigrants don't understand that U.S. immigration law is very complex and that a legal consultation is an important step to determine whether or not they qualify for citizenship or any other immigration benefit, like a work visa or Green Card.
NVCF: Promoting naturalization isn't easy, and incubating legal services targeted to citizenship in a semi-rural community like Napa County carries particular challenges. How do you stay motivated, and motivate your CLS partner agencies?
Madeline: My clients motivate me. When I see that someone's life has been changed by my help, and I see their gratitude, I want to continue on. My nonprofit partner agencies also work closely with our clients and are inspired by their hard work to become citizens. Like me, many of my colleagues also have immigrants in their families, so we understand the profound impact that naturalization has on people and their loved ones.
NVCF: You're a newcomer to Napa County--what has surprised you about the Valley?
Madeline: It's not that it's surprised me, but people here are very nice, the pace is slower and the community has a neighborly feel.
NVCF: What has surprised you about the Valley's local nonprofit sector?
Madeline: Their willingness to support CLS has been overwhelming. Whenever nonprofits hear about what we are doing, they want to spread the word to their clients and send them our way. They immediately see how our services can be of benefit.