“Naturalization empowers people. Once an immigrant naturalizes, they become a power, they become engaged and they now have a voice,” said Vanessa Sandoval. Those were some of the very powerful words that strike a resonating chord with every immigrant in the United States, writes Amar D. Gupta. (#NewAmericansCampaign, @NewAmericansCampaign, #USCIS, @USCIS, @NewAmericaMedia, #NewAmericaMedia, #Siliconeer, @Siliconeer, #USCitizenship, #NewAmericanWorkforce, #NationalImmigrationForum, @CityofSanJose)


Thanking the City of San Jose for their generosity in hosting the event at the San Jose City Hall, Sandy Close, executive director of New America Media said, “Two years ago, New America Media partnered with New Americans Campaign for the first time and San Jose. We’re taking on a topic this is often not seen as quite as sexy as Super Bowl but it is profoundly important. Enrolling eligible immigrants who unfortunately represent a very small number who’ve actually applied for Citizenship. And the challenge of course is how do we get a sense of urgency, how do we get a sense of optimism, how do we really mobilize people to enroll, to apply, to go through this process to become citizens.”

Sandy Close, executive director, New America Media (c, standing) with speakers at the U.S. Citizenship & the 2016 Race briefing, at San Jose City Hall, Feb. 5. (Amar D. Gupta | Siliconeer)

Sandy Close, executive director, New America Media (c, standing) with speakers at the U.S. Citizenship & the 2016 Race briefing, at San Jose City Hall, Feb. 5. (Amar D. Gupta | Siliconeer)

Taking stock, Close said, “We walked into this field two years ago, what’s changed as of today?”

“We are at a point of growing anti-immigrant hostility, both globally and nationally, you can feel it, you can see it. It’s propelled by the extraordinary increase we see in global migration,” said Close.

“According to a report in The New York Times, one in every 122 people on the planet is fleeing conflict. And the trend for people in movement for migration seems to be irreversible. The focus today is mainly citizenship so the migrant can be the voice of the community and exercise their right to vote. If someone applies now, they can still make it to be able to vote in the upcoming November U.S. Presidential elections.”

With these words, Sandy gave the floor to the panel of speakers, starting with Vanessa Sandoval of SIREN the organization that leads the New Americans Campaign. Out of the many statistics Sandoval mentioned, SIREN and New Americans Campaign have helped naturalize 200,000 people nationwide since 2011. In Santa Clara county, SIREN is working with local organizations to provide free naturalization services across the county.

Vanessa Sandoval of SIREN at the U.S. Citizenship & the 2016 Race briefing, at San Jose City Hall, Feb. 5. (Amar D. Gupta | Siliconeer)

Vanessa Sandoval of SIREN at the U.S. Citizenship & the 2016 Race briefing, at San Jose City Hall, Feb. 5. (Amar D. Gupta | Siliconeer)

Sandavol says, “Naturalization is important. It brings so many benefits to the immigrant community but at the same time for many people, it’s very inaccessible. Naturalization process is a legal process that involves eligibility screening, scrutiny of a person’s immigration history, criminal history, employment history, travel history, it’s a 21-page form that most of the communities that we serve, cannot complete on their own. They need guidance and orientation to fill out the application and more importantly, they are afraid to go to the immigration office, fearful of the interview and terrified of the exam. This is why we come in to demystify the naturalization process.

Our goal is to streamline the naturalization process so that is immigration benefit is available to everyone.

We create partnerships with local agencies like the social services agency to present workshops so people are aware of the social services benefits and assistance available to low-income families.

Naturalization empowers people. Once an immigrant naturalizes, they become a power, they become engaged and they now have a voice.”

Theodore Ko, a staff attorney with Asian Law Alliance said as of 2013, nationwide there were about 780,000 naturalizations. In California alone there were 164,000 naturalizations. In Santa Clara county there were 193,000-207,000 eligible permanent residents for naturalization.

Theodore Ko, a staff attorney with Asian Law Alliance, at the U.S. Citizenship & the 2016 Race briefing, at San Jose City Hall, Feb. 5. (Amar D. Gupta | Siliconeer)

Theodore Ko, a staff attorney with Asian Law Alliance, at the U.S. Citizenship & the 2016 Race briefing, at San Jose City Hall, Feb. 5. (Amar D. Gupta | Siliconeer)

As of September 20, 2015, in San Jose field office for fiscal year 2015, only 10,288 applications were approved for naturalization. There are hundreds of thousands of people who can become citizens but have not done so because they either don’t know, or they’re scared or the economic bars are too high for them.

He talked about the many benefits of becoming citizens, the most important being their right to vote, better economic life, and that they cannot be deported.

Out of the 780,000 in 2013, almost 50,000 people who naturalized were from India.

John Kramar, district director for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) spoke next.

John Kramar, district director for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), at the U.S. Citizenship & the 2016 Race briefing, at San Jose City Hall, Feb. 5. (Amar D. Gupta | Siliconeer)

John Kramar, district director for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), at the U.S. Citizenship & the 2016 Race briefing, at San Jose City Hall, Feb. 5. (Amar D. Gupta | Siliconeer)

Kramer exhibited a Civics and Citizenship Toolkit that’s available to community groups. The kit has Civics flash cards and vocabulary flash cards in various languages as well as in English. These are tools that the community can use to prepare for Citizenship interview and exam, said Kramer.

Kramer said the greatest barrier to citizenship is that fear factor. Demystifying the process is really important.

Speaking on fraudulent web sites, Kramer said to be very careful of any sites other than official USCIS site (uscis.gov). He said non-USCIS sites could make someone register and then ask for a fee. None of the information on becoming a citizen involves paying any fee on the USCIS part.

Kramer said that the USCIS is a fee-based agency. “Every application is processed in the order that it is received. Whoever is first in line, will go through the process first, so it is important for applicants to keep in mind important dates so they are not inconvenienced by the application process. Applicants should be honest and open about their application. They need to come prepared for the exam. The process does not take as long as it did a few years ago, so the applicants should prepare in advance as they might not have enough time after submitting the application.”

Zulma Maciel, from the City of San Jose Office of Immigrant Affairs, at the U.S. Citizenship & the 2016 Race briefing, at San Jose City Hall, Feb. 5. (Amar D. Gupta | Siliconeer)

Zulma Maciel, from the City of San Jose Office of Immigrant Affairs, at the U.S. Citizenship & the 2016 Race briefing, at San Jose City Hall, Feb. 5. (Amar D. Gupta | Siliconeer)

Zulma Maciel, from the City of San Jose Office of Immigrant Affairs, said promoting the naturalization process is a win-win situation not only for those who are seeking the naturalization process to become citizens, but also for the city as there are economic benefits to some of that. Most importantly, it’s the civic empowerment that comes when somebody has already decided to call San Jose, home and then take the next important step to protect their families and also provide additional income through better jobs. We are looking at this not only from the economic lens but also from the civic involvement perspective.

Monisha Merchant of the New American Workforce, a project of the National Immigration Forum, said they bring businesses and service provider partners together to assist legal permanent residents in the workplace and apply for citizenship. They bring the citizenship workshops to the work site to make it easier for employees of companies to be able to access the resources that help them in process of naturalization.

Monisha Merchant of the New American Workforce, at the U.S. Citizenship & the 2016 Race briefing, at San Jose City Hall, Feb. 5. (Amar D. Gupta | Siliconeer)

Monisha Merchant of the New American Workforce, at the U.S. Citizenship & the 2016 Race briefing, at San Jose City Hall, Feb. 5. (Amar D. Gupta | Siliconeer)

On being asked if Silicon Valley tech companies are part of the New American Workforce campaign, Merchant said, Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Infinera Corporation is one such company, and they are looking for more companies to participate.

Summing the benefits of naturalization, Hoang Truong, a recently naturalized citizen, who was originally from Vietnam aptly said, “When we become a U.S. citizen, we have the key, the key to the higher education door, the key to freedom, the key to vote, the key to do whatever we want.”

Gaining citizenship means gaining a voice. A voice that helps the community prosper even more. With that said, what needs to be addressed here is the fact that of all ethnic groups mentioned, one group which is essentially a large segment particularly in Silicon Valley, is fairly underserved by these organizations. South Asians – Indians were no where in the mention by any of the panelists. A key indicator that the South Asian community has to get together and become a larger voice so we are heard as far and well as other communities.

The next free citizenship workshop in San Jose is:
Saturday, February 27, 2016
at Mayfair Community Center
2039 Kammerer Ave, San Jose CA 95116.
For more information, visit www.siren-bayarea.org.
To register, call (408) 474-0454.

For more information about the New Americans Campaign and upcoming citizenship workshops, go to www.newamericanscampaign.org.