By Sharon Simonson
SAN JOSE—Hours after organizers planned to wind down Citizenship Day 2016 on Saturday at San Jose City College, dozens of would-be citizens still stood in a 60-foot queue that began at the glass doors of the school’s Main Gym and passed through a central campus plaza.
Those waiting anticipated the free advice and application assistance of a volunteer team of immigration experts and attorneys, who sat inside the gym, with pens and pencils and big, multilingual brains, at dozens of long folding tables aligned end-to-end in rows across the gym floor.
Earlier in the day, Rocio Zamora, 27, waited in the same line with her 7- and 5-year-old daughters. Dressed in pink, with her face carefully made up, she speaks in Spanish. Her husband and children are already U.S. citizens, and she is a legal permanent resident. Originally from Michoacan, Mexico, she wants to become a U.S. citizen to ensure her family’s stability and “para votar,” Zamora says.
One thousand four hundred people completed pre-application forms electronically in advance of the Saturday event, said Maricela Gutierrez, executive director of the Services, Immigrant Rights & Education Network in San Jose. SIREN helped manage and sponsor the effort alongside Univision Area de la Bahia; Santa Clara County; San Jose/Evergreen Community College District, parent of City College; the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, and the New American Campaign.
Silicon Valley relies on immigrants to feed its technical labor force and boost its population growth. Nearly 40 percent of Santa Clara County residents are foreign-born, including sizable communities of Mexican Hispanics, Asian Indians, Chinese and Vietnamese.
Gaining citizenship is time-consuming, difficult and expensive even in good circumstances, Gutierrez said. Beyond an attorney’s fees, the federal government charges $680 to apply. An unmarried applicant must have worked and lived legally in the United States for five years and be able to read, write and speak simple English, for starters. The process typically includes in-person interviews.
On this Saturday, warm sun, cool Northern California breezes and pop music in Spanish, gracias a Univision, lightened the burden. People attending one of the 17, one-hour orientation sessions chose from instruction in Spanish, Cantonese, Cambodian, Arabic, Amharic, Russian, Vietnamese, Korean, Somali, Tagalog, Tigrinya, Mandarin and, of course, English.
Before an 11 a.m. session (in English), more than 300 people, from newborns to the aged, filled rows of folding chairs in the college’s Auxiliary Gym, next door to the Main Gym. Filtered sunlight from large windows illuminated the crumbling but pleasantly painted interior of what appeared to be an ancient quonset hut. The building is one of several on campus completed after the Second World War, a groundskeeper said, and is slated for demolition, according to the City College web site. Holly Duong, a volunteer, read from a Power Point presentation with more details about gaining citizenship, as heads bowed to complete screening forms and more people arrived.
At the end, organizers directed everyone to divide into two groups: those with and without arrests, including traffic tickets, long absences from the United States in the previous five years, other legal problems. The groups are roughly equal in size. The “easy” cases are led to the line outside the Main Gym, where the actual application process is to begin.
The goal is for those in line today to be citizens in time to cast ballots in the November presidential election, Gutierrez says: “It’s an important time to be able to vote.”