Latinos becoming citizens, community advocates with help of service organizations

Photo/Anthony Victoria: Sara Lopez, center, going over the USCIS citizenship interview process with fellow classmates at the Libreria del Pueblo offices in San Bernardino on June 26. Lopez, who has been in the U.S. for over 20 years, is now a U.S. citizen.

Every week is the same routine for the students enrolled in Libreria del Pueblo’s English and U.S. citizenship courses. The 20 or so individuals engage with instructors–taking in American history and government–and grammar lessons to prepare for their interviews with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services officials.

The students–Latino legal residents hoping to become U.S. citizens–are mandated to speak and learn only in English. It’s something that has proved to be difficult, but effective.

“Many of us felt embarrassed to speak in English initially,” explained Jose Luis Santa Cruz, who will be inducted as a U.S. citizen next week. “But after a while, one grows into their own and builds self-confidence. With open minds, we all can fly high.”

English instructor Alycia Enciso said Libreria has implemented a philosophy focused on motivating people to take matters into their own hands.

“It’s like Benjamin Franklin said, ‘Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn,’” explained Enciso. “It’s amazing to see the transformation in some of these people.”

It’s an organizing model multiple Latino service organizations are adopting to encourage more residents to become citizens and motivate them to pursue civic engagement.

“I think citizenship is the first step,” said San Bernardino Community Center Executive Director Emilio Amaya. “But we’re lacking a project that educates naturalized citizens on how to get involved in their community.”

The number of naturalization applications submitted has risen in recent years, according to the Pew Research Center. USCIS received 286,692 applications in the first quarter of 2017. That’s approximately 43,000 more than last year, according to data.

USCIS’ San Bernardino office received 6,836 applications–4,292 of those were approved, while 529 were denied. About 14,000 applications are currently pending.

Amaya attributes this influx of applications to the changing tide of American politics associated with Donald Trump’s rise as President. He said many are afraid they may be subjected to detention and deportation despite having legal residency.

“Many people feel at risk,” he said. “They fear losing their livelihoods, everything they’ve worked for. So they’ve been coming to us and other organizations for assistance.”

The San Bernardino Community Service Center specializes in helping individuals with “complex citizenship applications”, described by Amaya as cases that involve residents that have criminal backgrounds, previous deportations, and elderly residents that fear dealing with immigration officials. Amaya said his office has dealt with over 150 cases since the beginning of the year.

Amaya is hopeful that Latinos who attain citizenship will utilize their newfound privilege to make a difference.

“Our people need constant action,” he said. “There’s always a lot of movement during election time. But it’s not enough. We need more people fighting with us against the injustices our communities experience daily.”

Sara Lopez, who has lived in the U.S. for over 20 years, said she was shocked when she was told by a USCIS official that she had passed her interview.

“I cried a little bit,” she said. “I was very afraid at what was going to happen. None of us are perfect, especially us who have had to learn the language from scratch. It’s been a difficult journey.

Lopez, who has three U.S. born children, hopes her newfound status will encourage other Latino residents and immigrants to pursue citizenship.

“We have to prove [Trump] wrong,” she said. “We’re not criminals and rapists. If we were bad people, we wouldn’t be accomplishing the American Dream. We’re just as American as anyone else.”