Citizenship fair Photo by Molly DeCoudreaux Photography

Citizenship and Its Privileges

Reflections on helping new Americans navigate the path to naturalization

Less than 10% of people who could naturalize in the U.S. actually do. Victoria Rodarte talks about her experience volunteering at citizenship fairs, and what brings her to this work.

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It was a typical foggy late summer morning in San Francisco. We were in an office in the Tenderloin district, which was set up for the day to help immigrants apply for citizenship. The room was filled to capacity, with a line running out the door. The foggy conditions outside were a perfect metaphor for the way so many people see the citizenship application process. It’s unclear, hard to navigate, and even a little frightening. According to the New Americans Campaign, more than 8 million immigrants across the country currently qualify for U.S. citizenship but have not applied–many of them because they don’t have the information they need to get started.

Consider the story of Alicia. She was one of the women I helped that day to complete an application. Alicia is originally from El Salvador and has had a green card for more than 25 years. Now in her fifties, she has raised four children, works as a janitor, and is a longtime resident of San Francisco. When I reminded her she could have applied for citizenship many years ago, she said she didn’t understand the process; it sounded too complicated. She also had a fear in the back of her mind that she might get deported if she didn’t pass the civics test. Last but not least, money was a clear barrier—a $680 application fee plus the costs of legal help.

But Alicia had recently gotten a letter from the city’s Human Services Agency reminding her that she was eligible to apply for citizenship and stating that she might qualify for an application fee waiver. All she had to do was attend the August workshop hosted by the San Francisco Pathways to Citizenship Initiative, where she would find legal consulting and help with the application, all at no cost.

Since joining the staff at the Haas, Jr. Fund, I have worked at several of these workshops as a volunteer. I am inspired do this because I come from a family of immigrants. Helping other people like Alicia navigate the process so they can experience the privileges and the responsibilities of citizenship is one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

I grew up in Bell Gardens, a city in Los Angeles County that is 96-percent Latino. It’s a working-class city dominated by immigrants. I remember always feeling privileged that my parents were both U.S. citizens. My mother was born here to Mexican immigrants; my father, also from Mexico, got a green card after marrying my mom and eventually became a citizen. I was lucky–unlike so many other young people I knew, I didn’t have to worry about coming home from school one day and finding out that my parents had been deported.

We didn’t have a lot, but my parents were citizens! And my brother and I are citizens too. No one could take that away from us. Because we were citizens, we had certain rights and privileges, including the right to vote, which my family has always believed is very important. Now, I see it as my civic duty to help other people take that critical step toward citizenship, so that their voices can be counted and they can take advantage of opportunities that may not have otherwise been available.

When we finished completing her forms, Alicia told me she was excited to finally apply to be a U.S. citizen. She said she looked forward to voting. She said she is concerned about the negativity she keeps hearing about immigrants from so many political candidates and elected leaders.

Alicia may not get to vote in the elections this fall; the application process takes anywhere from six to eight months to complete. But the idea of Alicia one day soon enjoying the privileges of citizenship makes me happy and proud to have helped her along the way. It also makes me as determined as ever to keep doing my part—both through my volunteering and through the work I do at the Haas, Jr. Fund—to make this a more welcoming country for immigrants.