Citizenship Legal Services: Building Community Through Citizenship
Maria, a Calistoga resident for twenty years, is a mother of three and grandmother of seven. She still works part-time as a housekeeper and stays active with friends and family. At the urging of her family, who wanted to ensure she has the full rights that being a US citizen provides, she decided to be naturalized with the support of Citizenship Legal Services offered by the UpValley Family Centers (UVFC). Maria attended free citizenship classes and worked with a volunteer tutor to master the 100 questions that can be asked during the citizenship interview. Maria passed her test, was sworn in as a US citizen with her family by her side, and she voted in US elections for the first time in June 2018.
Maria is just one of more than 1,000 citizenship success stories thanks to the Citizenship Legal Services collaborative. To understand how this great achievement was accomplished, I spoke with Terence Mulligan and Julia DeNatale of Napa Valley Community Foundation (NVFC). In 2011, the NVCF Board of Directors wanted to take action to create civil dialogue around our rapidly changing population. They launched the One Napa Valley Initiative to find out more information, identify gaps and propose solutions for our residents.
In order to be non-partisan and data driven in their efforts, NVCF commissioned a study by the Migration Policy Institute. The Profile of Immigrants in Napa County, completed in 2012, was the first documented study of what many people already knew: immigrants are an essential part of our economy by paying taxes and being overrepresented in our workforce.
The study also found that immigrants in Napa County were becoming citizens at a lower rate when compared to the state of California because they didn’t have access to affordable immigration services locally. NVCF identified a best practice workshop model offered by the Immigration Institute of the Bay Area (IIBA) and recruited local community organizations to provide the necessary citizenship services. In 2012, Citizenship Legal Services Collaborative formed as a partnership between IIBA, On the Move, Puertas Abiertas, and the UpValley Family Centers.
Jenny Ocón, Executive Director of the UpValley Family Centers, said, “As an organization operating family resource centers in Calistoga and St. Helena, we received regular inquiries of people needing advice and assistance, but we did not have the capacity to serve them prior to becoming involved in the Citizenship Legal Services collaborative. Some of our clients faced barriers to getting legal help because services were a significant drive away or too expensive, and others had paid a notario for help and got bad advice that hurt their case.”
UVFC got involved in the Citizenship Legal Services collaborative because they felt it was important to have reputable immigration legal services and accurate information available to the residents they serve. They have seen these services improve the lives of community members in many ways. The people they help to become US citizens have often lived in here for many years or even decades. “They, and their family members, have a sense of accomplishment in getting through the citizenship process and are proud to be citizens of a country where they have worked so hard and raised their children,” said Ocón.
With an immigration policy landscape that has been changing quickly over the time of the Citizenship Legal Services collaborative, the people and families served have the peace of mind of knowing they are getting accurate information and a clear understanding about their rights and what steps they can take to address their situation. “Ultimately, access to reputable information and legal services is reducing levels of fear, worry and concern that many families have experienced, and it is making our community stronger,” said Ocón.
Moving forward, NVCF considers this one of the most important issues facing Napa County and will continue to support the Citizenship Legal Services collaborative through changing immigration policy. The Foundation President, Terence Mulligan, has the vision that “Citizenship Legal Services will continue to be a permanent part of the landscape for local residents.” The goal is to close the citizenship gap and bring the number of foreign-born immigrants who have naturalized to 37%.
Beyond helping over 1,000 people become citizens, one of the biggest successes has been the development of an immigration services infrastructure that didn’t exist six years ago. Now there is increased local capacity to help members of our community become citizens and get support for other immigration challenges.
From Ocón’s perspective, “Citizenship Legal Services has become an essential infrastructure for serving immigrants in Napa County. The organizational partners work very closely together, have established trust and a track record in the community, and have reached thousands of individuals with life-changing information and legal assistance. Our collaborative has recruited and trained hundreds of volunteers – expanding our reach and the services we can provide. In sum, the Citizenship Legal Services infrastructure is addressing significant needs countywide in a major and systemic way that would not have been possible prior to our formation.” Less tangible, but still an invaluable benefit, Citizen Legal Services has “helped to build a bridge in a way that fosters real, personal connections across a valley that’s too often divided,” from Mulligan’s point of view.
Citizenship Legal Services is the embodiment of “The Napa Way”: neighbors helping neighbors and creating solutions that improve quality of life of everyone in our valley. There are many ways to get involved. People interested in volunteering can email the Outreach Coordinator at firstname.lastname@example.org. NVCF welcomes financial support at any level to continue the work of Citizenship Legal Services. For more information visit napavalleycf.org.
There is “no wrong door” for people to connect to Citizenship Legal Services. For more information in English visit napacitizens.org.