Napa Valley Register: 12 Days of Giving: The Immigration Institute of the Bay Area supports the legal needs of Napa’s immigrants

December 16, 2021 by Edward Booth

Immigrants are tightly connected to Napa’s culture, economy and community.

Immigrants represent about 73% of Napa’s agricultural workforce and large portions of the county’s manufacturing, construction and hospitality industries, according to a 2012 report about Napa’s immigrant population from the Migration Policy Institute.

But many of Napa’s immigrants likely eligible to become United States citizens have not yet been naturalized. The 2012 report found that only 30% of Napa’s immigrants were naturalized as citizens at that time, compared to 37% statewide and 36% across the US.

US citizens can vote and run for public office, can travel with a US Passport, have a reduced risk of deportation, and can obtain citizenship for children born abroad, along with a host of associated benefits.

“There are things associated with citizenship like higher rates of homeownership; higher salaries; children of US citizens reaching higher levels of education; and more civic engagement,” said Madeline Hernandez, North Bay Regional Director of the Immigration Institute of the Bay Area.

The organization also expanded to provide other immigration-related services to thousands more. That includes outreach, education, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) renewal assistance, family reunification, humanitarian services, and deportation defenses.

Various success stories of the Napa branch — listed on the IIBA website —include helping residents like Yoseline Chavez and Marielle Coeytaux-Britton become citizens.

The IIBA also helped Napa resident Jose complete a DACA renewal application — which allow immigrants who were brought to the US unlawfully as children to work in the country and defer deportation action — every two years so he could stay in the US and become a dentist.

And the IIBA successfully fought a 2017 deportation case for longtime resident Jorge, who also later became a citizen with the assistance of IIBA.

Napa’s IIBA branch was started up as a direct response to the 2012 population report, which was commissioned by the Napa Valley Community Foundation. The foundation believed the county would be better able to understand and grapple with challenges related to immigration with a set of local facts and data, according to the report.

The finished report, “A Profile of Immigrants in Napa County,” found that 23% of Napa County residents were foreign-born. That included roughly 12,000 green card holders — immigrants authorized to live and work in the US permanently.

The report also found that immigrants represent 33% of Napa’s workforce and account for as much as $1 billion of the region’s gross domestic product.

“The individuals that we serve are individuals that basically keep Napa’s economy running,” Hernandez said.

Among several recommendations, the report urged the county to increase the availability of citizenship programs so eligible residents can participate more fully in the civic and economic life of the Napa community.

So, the Napa Valley Community Foundation set out to find a legal organization that would partner with several local organizations — including On the Move, UpValley Family Centers, and the Puertas Abiertas Community Resource Center — to help local immigrants naturalize.

“We, the community foundation, kind of hit the streets to identify how we might build legal services infrastructure for immigrants,” said Julia DeNatale, the Napa Valley Community Foundation’s vice president of community impact.

DeNatale said the community foundation ended up essentially importing IIBA — which was founded in 1918 and maintains offices throughout the Bay Area — into Napa County with grant funding.

Napa’s IIBA branch then included only Hernandez, who now directs an office of about a dozen staffers.

At first the organization was focused almost entirely on building community trust and naturalizing Napa’s green card holders, Hernandez said. IIBA held citizenship workshops alongside the partner organizations and carried out “a lot of outreach because people didn’t know who we were.”

“We did a lot of presentations about the benefits of citizenship, voting, civic engagement, higher salaries, ability to travel without limits, all the things that people who naturalize can do,” Hernandez said. “We started doing in-person workshops where we would try to gather 20 to 50 to 80 people at a time.”

But the organization’s scope of work expanded as it came to understand the other needs of Napa’s immigrants.

“We really started focusing on raising funds and talking about immigration as a whole, what is needed in the county, what’s the demand,” Hernandez added. “And so now we really provide almost all immigration legal services.”

Ellen Dumesnil, executive director of IIBA, said the organization has tried to meet people where they are through the pandemic. The Napa team, she said, held an outdoor, drive-by event earlier in the pandemic for older clients who were fearful of moving forward with applications if they couldn’t see someone personally.

Overall, she said, the organization has grown over time to employ 60 current staff members, directly in response to needs from the communities IIBA serves and opened a Sonoma County branch in 2017.

“We’re grateful for the support we’ve received from Napa community members on behalf of other community members,” Dumesnil said. “It’s really something to see a community step up for other community members that are less fortunate, and that’s what we’ve seen in Napa.”

Throughout its existence, volunteers have also helped IIBA with a considerable amount of its work. In total, Hernandez said, 463 volunteers have donated about 12,300 hours of work to the Napa branch so far.

The volunteer work can vary, but much of the time volunteers have served as pseudo-paralegals by helping Napa’s immigrants fill out applications for citizenship or DACA renewals in workshops of 20-plus people prior to the pandemic, or remotely during the pandemic.

That effort from volunteers cuts down on the time the IIBA paralegals and attorneys need to spend figuring out information from each client on each case, which allows the organization to file a greater number of applications each year, Hernandez said.

In total, the organization has filed 2,278 citizenship applications and 2,777 applications for other immigration benefits, including DACA. (Though the Napa IIBA has had a 98% success rate with naturalization applications, it currently takes over a year for those applications to be processed by the federal government, according to Hernandez.)

“Each circumstance has to be analyzed by an attorney,” Hernandez said. “And so it’s important that people applying for citizenship have that support so that we can analyze each situation properly and not put individuals at risk. That’s our main goal, right. We’re not going to file an application knowing that they don’t qualify.”

Lenore Hirsch, who’s volunteered with IIBA since 2016, said she trained with IIBA several times and is now trained in helping clients fill out all the various parts of the citizenship application.

Different aspects of the application require different trainings, such as determining whether the applicant is prepared for a test of their English ability or is eligible for a fee waiver — which is dependent on the low income or receiving a means-tested benefit like MediCal or CalFresh.

Hirsch has helped immigrants fill out the applications for citizenship. Certain aspects of the application can be difficult or time-consuming, Hirsch said, such as a section that requires applicants to list all their children and their children’s addresses.

Sections can also be offensive to some applicants, Hirsch said, such as a section that asks applicants whether they’ve ever been a habitual drunkard or a prostitute, or if they’ve been involved in genocide.

“It’s very important that they answer truthfully because if they lie on their application, they could actually be deported,” Hirsch said. “So it’s a very serious thing, but I try to make it easier by letting them know I know these questions are quite offensive.”

Without a fee waiver, applicants must pay a government fee of $725 to apply for citizenship. There is no fee waiver for DACA renewal applications, which cost $495. IIBA currently isn’t charging legal fees for DACA renewal or citizenship applications.

“We charge no fees or very nominal fees to clients,” Hernandez said. “Fees are actually only about 15% of our total budget. And we want to keep it that way. In order to keep it that way we need to raise funds so that our budget can cover our staffing and the work that we do.”

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