From St. Helena Star: Local nonprofits help Napa Countians become U.S. citizens

Third in an occasional series

Even though answering 10 questions on the government, history and laws of the United States wasn’t hard, I still got two wrong. I had studied the 100 questions and answers – or rather I had read over them a couple of times – and it didn’t matter if I got all of them right or wrong.

Not so for Blanca Dixon, Immigration Program coordinator for the UpValley Family Centers. Dixon is a lawful permanent resident who is seeking to become a U.S. citizen. She is one of nearly 9,000 LPRs living in Napa County who are eligible to become U.S. citizens.

In July 2013, the Napa Valley Community Foundation and more than 125 donors and four nonprofits launched the One Napa Valley Initiative. It is designed to help Napa County’s foreign-born residents become citizens. The nonprofits are UpValley Family Centers, the International Institute of the Bay Area, On the Move and Puertas Abiertas.

Before meeting with a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officer to orally answer the questions, Dixon said she was studying the questions every night. Additionally, she was listening to them on a CD in her car during her 30-minute commute. “I go question by question and if I know the answer, I skip it,” she said. “At the beginning, I couldn’t even get through the 100 questions. Now I can do it twice.”

The questions aren’t hard and the answers are supplied. Dixon said, “The good thing is that there are several answers for each question. So I tell my clients, pick the one (answer) that is closer to Spanish, so you can remember it.” That’s what she did, and she reports she passed the test.

During a mid-August mock test, Dixon asked four of us 10 questions. Both Norma Ferriz, operations director for the UpValley Family Centers, and Jesse Duarte, Star reporter, got all 10 right. Jenny Ocon, UpValley Family Centers’ executive director, got nine of 10 right.

How hard were the questions? “I think we got some of the easier questions,” Ocon said. “I feel like I knew quite a bit, but I know there are some questions in there that I would be struggling with quite a bit. Dates and numbers, for example, would be tough.”

We all knew that George Washington is regarded as the father of our country, and each of us could name a freedom guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, freedom of speech, for example, or freedom of assembly. A listing of officers in the cabinet — such as secretary of state and secretary of defense — also was fairly straightforward.

“For somebody born as a U.S. citizen, who grew up here, I feel like so much of this information is absorbed over time,” Ocon said. “A lot of this you learn in school. But, if you’re not from this country, you don’t have that benefit, so it does require studying.”

Ferriz, who passed the test in September 2013 and shortly thereafter became a U.S. citizen, said the mock civics test was OK, but added she did study before taking it. She said it was the same as when she sat for the oral exam before a Department of Homeland Security officer three years ago, except she wasn’t nervous this time because “I was not being evaluated.” Three years ago, though, she missed one question, because of what she calls “a stupid mistake.”

Ferriz was asked when the Declaration of Independence was and she replied, “Fourth of July, 1976.” She stuck with her answer even when the DHS officer questioned her again, and the woman told her the correct year was 1776. “I knew the right answer,” Ferriz said, “but I was so nervous.”

Becoming a U.S. citizen isn’t easy, especially for people who didn’t grow up here, may have very limited English skills and have trouble reading and writing, Ferriz said. “I was nervous because it means a lot to us (to become a U.S. citizen). It really does.”

Ellis Island connection

Lisa Toller has lived in St. Helena for the past 20 years, and her husband Joel was raised here. Lisa has served on the UpValley Family Centers’ board for the past two years and said she is vitally interested in immigration and citizenship issues in the Napa Valley. “I am very interested and very proud of our work regarding immigration and integration,” Toller said. “I think it is important that community members understand how motivated and how difficult it is for people to become U.S. citizens. I know it is something I take for granted, and I’ll bet a lot of folks do.”

Toller said her grandparents on both sides of her family were immigrants, one side from Italy, the other from Ireland. One was a coal miner, the other a stone mason. “When they came to this country, like a lot of folks, it was the land of promise,” she said.

About a decade ago, Toller and her youngest son, Tyler, went to Ellis Island, in New York, with the express purpose of looking up Toller’s great-grandfather, Anselmo Lenzini, who came to this country with his family. Between 1892 and 1954, more than 12 million immigrants entered the United States through the Ellis Island station, which was a small island in New York Harbor.

“I actually found his signature in the records at Ellis Island and it was really an incredible feeling,” Toller said. “I had never seen his signature before. I never knew him, but somehow I connected with him at that place. My oldest son Sam is named after him.”

Citizenship equals integration

The UpValley Family Centers offer their citizenship services in both St. Helena and Calistoga. Both Indira Lopez and Blanca Dixon continue with their training through the International Institute of the Bay Area, which began more than a year ago.

For Ferriz, becoming a U.S. citizen “would be more convenient. I was living here and I was going to live here for the rest of my life.” She said the question is not why did she become a U.S. citizen, five years after permanently moving to the United States, but a better question is why not.

Ocon said the center is committed to helping people become citizens, so they can feel as integrated as they can with the community. “There’s research that shows that U.S. citizens over time tend to have higher education, make more money and have a better quality of life than non citizens,” Ocon said.

The services are specific for each individual. “We each have a different story of how we came to this country, why we came, what we brought and what we didn’t,” Ferriz said. “It’s not a cookie-cutter service.” Lopez and Dixon analyze each person’s situation “to make sure the path is the best one for that person.”

For more information on becoming a U.S. citizen, contact Blanca Dixon at bdixon@upvalleyfamilycenters.org.

The final part of the series will tell the citizenship story of Angwin resident Elsa Cairo Carlos.

U.S. citizenship classes begin

A new citizenship class session is offered from 6-8 p.m., every Tuesday in St. Helena. Childcare is provided. An application workshop for those applying for U.S. citizenship will be held Tuesday, Sept. 20 at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 2222 Spring St., St. Helena. For more information contact Blanca Dixon at bdixon@upvalleyfamilycenters.org.

U.S. civics test

1. What is one right or freedom from the First Amendment?

2. What is the “rule of law”?

3. What are two Cabinet-level positions?

4. Name one right only for United States citizens?

5. What territory did the United States buy from France in 1803?

Answers: 1. Speech, religion, assembly, press, petition the government. 2. Everyone must follow the law, leaders must obey the law, government must obey the law, no one is above the law. 3. Secretary of agriculture, commerce, defense, education, energy, health and human services, etc. 4. Vote in a federal election, run for federal office. 5. The Louisiana Territory or Louisiana.

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