April 05, 2014 6:14 pm • JANELLE WETZSTEIN
Philanthropy behind ambitious local effort
Most people born in the United States never have to answer these questions outside of a high school civics class. But for foreign-born U.S. residents like 36-year-old Jaime Torres, knowing such answers is key to becoming a full-fledged U.S. citizen.
“I knew that I wanted to become a citizen, but I didn’t know if I could do it,” said Torres, who has legally called the United States home for 21 years without ever becoming naturalized. “I was very nervous. But I made flash cards, I studied and I’m just so excited that I passed.”
With the help of One Napa Valley — a $1 million citizenship program that started last year — Torres passed his test last week and will officially be sworn in as a U.S. citizen at a ceremony in Oakland on Monday. He won’t have to reapply for a green card every 10 years, or worry about being deported. And he’ll finally be allowed to vote.
Torres couldn’t stop smiling as he addressed a class Monday evening at McPherson Elementary School. Ten adult students sat before the shy Torres and clamored for information, repeatedly cheering his success.
Torres fidgeted back and forth as he told the group a few of the questions he was asked. Those in the class eagerly shouted out answers — racing to speak first, to speak loudly and to speak correctly.
It’s surprising to realize that just seven months ago, this citizenship class didn’t exist.
Seeing the need
In 2012, the Napa Valley Community Foundation finished a yearlong study on the economic and fiscal impacts of immigration in Napa County. The results were startling.
On average, about 37 percent of California green card holders become residents each year, while only 30 percent do so in Napa County — an area heavily reliant on immigrant and migrant workers in the hospitality and wine industries.
“Unlike larger cities throughout California — which have bigger networks of service providers to help people through the citizenship process — Napa didn’t have that kind of infrastructure in place,” said foundation president Terence Mulligan. “So we decided that we had to build it.”
A year ago, the foundation announced plans to use $1 million in grant and donation funds to help a portion of the county’s 9,000 legal permanent residents to become naturalized citizens. In partnership with the International Institute of the Bay Area, a nonprofit that provides immigration assistance, the foundation created several programs, classes and workshops meant to help green card holders. The program made financial assistance available to those who can’t afford the $680 citizenship fee or additional legal counsel.
Mulligan said the program has seen success, but added that it hasn’t been easy.
“Trying to figure out the best way to reach people has been our biggest challenge,” he said Tuesday. “We are trying to contact people who are often working long hours, who may not trust us immediately. And, there hasn’t been an organization like this in the community before. So we’ve been playing catch-up”
Despite the challenges, One Napa Valley has helped almost two dozen legal residents become citizens in the past 12 months — something many clients said wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.
According to Madeline Feldon, staff attorney and program director for the citizenship program, receiving comprehensive citizenship support is a necessary tool to boosting citizenship numbers.
“Navigating the system can be very confusing,” she said. “People don’t know if they qualify, if things in their past will raise red flags, if they speak enough English to make it through the test. And finding all that out can be a daunting task if you don’t have services under one umbrella.”
Prior to One Napa Valley’s program, there were several attorneys in the city that handled citizenship cases. But Feldon said they weren’t actively doing outreach to the immigrant community or offering complete case management.
“They help with the paperwork and their fees varied, depending on the work,” she said. “But it’s not like there is someone there to offer extra help. It just isn’t user-friendly — and that’s so important for people.”
Going the extra mile
Martha Gutierrez is a married, 35-year-old homemaker and mother. She came to Napa eight years ago after emigrating from the west Mexico state of Jalisco. Although her husband is a naturalized citizen, it took two years for him to legally bring his wife to the states.
“We lived apart, he came back to visit a few times a year and we waited,” she said casually, unaware of how her situation — though familiar to many Mexican families — would be considered extremely difficult for most American families to endure.
“Many people in Mexico have (spouses) who live far away,” she said, with the help of a translator. “It’s normal.”
Five years after she arrived in Napa — as soon as she became eligible — Gutierrez’s husband began encouraging her to apply for citizenship. After years of prodding from her husband, Gutierrez agreed to give it a shot.
Instructors and volunteers working with the One Napa Valley program took Gutierrez under their wing. They helped her with her English, helped her study for the citizenship test and — most importantly — helped her file paperwork.
“I was afraid of my English (skills) and to study the 100 questions, but I was more afraid of the costs and doing the legal work right,” she said. “They help filling out everything, and reviewing everything was great.”
For some, the question isn’t if they can naturalize — it’s whether they should.
“I thought about becoming a citizen for a long time, but never saw the point,” said Arturo Garcia, a 39-year-old Mexican immigrant who has lived in Napa County since 1995. “I always made an excuse. I was too busy, or it was too much money. This time, I felt like I had run out of excuses.”
Monday afternoon, there was a mixture of confidence and relief etched into Garcia’s face. He said he’s thrilled his sister-in-law emailed him a flier for One Napa Valley — especially since he recently passed his citizenship test after receiving assistance from the program.
Garcia has lived in the city of Napa since 2002. He emigrated from Jalisco, Mexico, in 1995 and settled in St. Helena working in a wine cellar. He eventually met and married a Mexican-American woman born in the U.S.
And that’s when things got complicated. The couple has two children and make frequent trips back to Mexico to visit family. But every time they go through customs, Garcia’s wife and two children sail straight through the airport checkpoints, flashing their U.S. passports, while Garcia is pulled into a waiting room for further questioning.
“Leaving the country is never a problem, but getting back in always takes forever,” he said with a sheepish grin. “Anytime we travel, my daughter is rolling her eyes, saying ‘not again’ as I get taken into that side room so agents can verify that I am who I say I am.”
Now that Garcia is a U.S. citizen, he says one of his first tasks will be getting a U.S. passport. “I can’t wait for my trip home this June,” he said. “I would advise everyone not to procrastinate — especially now, with this new help.”
While many celebrate the accomplishments of One Napa Valley’s first year in action, Mulligan said there is more work to be done.
“Our stated goal is to get 2,000 people in Napa County to become citizens in three years,” said Mulligan. “It’s a hugely ambitious goal. And I don’t think it’s impossible.”
It may not be impossible, but it certainly won’t be easy. Despite that, Mulligan remains optimistic and said he believes the program can succeed over time. But even if the foundation reaches its three-year goal of 2,000 new U.S. citizens by 2015, Mulligan said it won’t be enough.
“We know there are possibly 10,000 to 15,000 immigrants living in the shadows, not yet allowed to become citizens,” he said. “There are many more who need support. Right now, we’re focusing on legal permanent residents, but if there’s a change in immigration laws, we might be able to help countless others.”
Even though the foundation wants to do more, it has its hands full right now. Later this month, a new group of students will begin taking classes — including longtime Napa resident Reynaldo Zertuche, general manager of the Embassy Suites Napa Valley.
“I think you participate more in the community once you become a citizen,” he said. “I imagine you feel more integrated.”
Becoming a citizen was never very high on Zertuche’s priority list. Born in Mexico, the 57-year-old has lived outside his native country for most of his life. He left home to attend a hospitality school in Switzerland when he was 17 and hasn’t been back since.
“I’ve been a gypsy for most of my life,” he said jokingly.
Zertuche, who has been eligible to apply for citizenship for many years, said that when his employees started to consider taking the classes, he listened to their struggles and felt compelled to join them.
“I want to support their efforts,” he said. “It’s not easy for a lot of people to get the money together to apply for citizenship. It’s even harder for those who don’t speak English well.”
Prior to the One Napa Valley classes, Zertuche said he knew many legal residents who spent as much as $5,000 trying to become citizens — some failing and having nothing to show for their expense and time.
“And it wasn’t people failing the tests,” he said. “It was them not doing the paperwork right, or missing a step in the process and not knowing where to turn for help.”
Zertuche, who is taking the class with seven other Embassy Suites employees, said that he looks forward to the day he can walk up to a ballot box and cast his very first vote in an election. Though he has followed politics for years — “always fascinated by the happenings” — he hasn’t lived in Mexico in 40 years. Thus, he’s been relegated to the realm of passive political spectator.
“I know I will be crying,” he said with excitement. “It’s going to be so emotional for me. People are going to be a little freaked out when they see my tears, but I will be so happy.”