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Becoming American: SLO County residents prep to change their citizenship status

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Four people faced regional librarian Aracelli Astorga in a fluorescent-lit room where she stood in front of a dry-erase board. That day, Astorga was going over a portion of the application to become a naturalized citizen of the United States, a form known as the N-400.

Her students range from 30 to 40 years old, and they're from different parts of the world. On Aug. 6, she taught two women from Mexico, one man from Vietnam, and another man from Costa Rica.

PREPARATION Aracelli Astorga, regional librarian for the SLO Library, is a source for residents in SLO County who want to prepare for their naturalization test and interview. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • PREPARATION Aracelli Astorga, regional librarian for the SLO Library, is a source for residents in SLO County who want to prepare for their naturalization test and interview.

Every Tuesday, Astorga teaches a Citizenship Class (Clase de Ciudadania) in English and Spanish from 5 to 6 p.m. at the San Luis Obispo Library. The one-hour classes focus on a different aspect of the naturalization process each week, from the application to the interview they'll need to face with a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services official.

Registration for the class isn't required. There is no sign-up sheet. Students know each other by first name only. And the classes are designed that way, Astorga said, to protect the identity of those who attend them.

New Times attended the classes for about five months to observe and understand what it takes to apply for and successfully pass the naturalization test.

The number of students fluctuated with every class. The highest number of students who ever attended one class was about six people. Some came once to get information and didn't return; others were loyal and attended classes weekly. All walked through the meeting room door with the same goal: to become an American citizen.

Submitting an application is the first hurdle, for some, in the naturalization process. What follows is the waiting game for an appointment with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for an interview, along with studying in preparation. For others, it's getting a green card.

According to Immigration Services, the most common path to citizenship starts with being a permanent resident, or holding a green card for at least five years. To be eligible for citizenship, the resident must be physically in the United States for at least 30 months out of that five-year stay. The applicant must also be able to read, write, and speak English and have an understanding of U.S. history and government.

This is where Astorga's class comes in handy. She breaks up the requirements with each class, going over any questions the students may have. Applicants have to be prepared to answer personal questions about how many children they have and how many times they've left the country, as well as whether they've ever been arrested or have ever been a member of a rebel group. Then, of course, there's a written and oral exam of sorts.

To prepare for that portion of the interview, Astorga gives her students a study worksheet with 100 U.S. government and civics questions. Of those, the official will only ask six, but the applicant has no idea which six.

"I encourage the students to not just memorize the questions, but understand why the question is being asked," Astorga said. "Why is it important in the country's history?"

Supportive space

Wein, a student in Astorga's class who goes by his last name, submitted his N-400 application at the beginning of the year. Originally from Vietnam, he said he came to the United States to create a better life for his now 12-year-old son.

He regularly attends the classes, but he does miss a class or two every month. As a nail technician, Wein can usually get away from work just long enough to pick up his son from school. On Tuesdays, he extends that time, picking up his son and attending Astorga's citizenship class.

English is Wein's second language, a common theme among Astorga's students. At times, the class focuses on the correct way to pronounce names, such as Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

After repeating "Pelosi" out loud a few times, Wein looked at the pen in his hand and said that he would think of a writing tool to remember the name. His fellow classmates tell him it's a good idea.

Students always encourage and congratulate one another over correct answers. Wein said the positive environment is helpful for some who might be daunted by the task of memorizing 100 questions. He comes to the classes, he said, because everyone who attends is basically in the same situation.

"We're all a little nervous, but this class helps. I just want to have a better life for my son. That's why I want to become a citizen," Wein said, pointing to his son who's walking around the library aisles.

In a few months, it will be a year that Wein has been waiting to hear from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency for a date to take the test, but he's not in any rush. He said the wait gives him more time to study—even though he answers all of Astorga's questions correctly.

Astorga has been helping individuals like Wein for a little more than six years. She began teaching citizenship classes through a library branch in El Paso, Texas. The U.S.-Mexico border separates El Paso from Mexico, so she said a lot of people who attended the classes were of Mexican nationality. It's different in San Luis Obispo, though.

"Here I talked to persons that are from Canada, England, a person from the Middle East, Costa Rica, and Guatemala," she said.

The other difference she sees is the number of individuals who attend the class. In El Paso, she said, an average evening class had around 12 students.

Here in San Luis Obispo, the students told New Times they appreciate the smaller class size because if they need individual help or have a question to their specific case, Astorga can help; the rest of the class members also learn from each other's experience.

In both places, Astorga said her students have a drive to learn and understand what they're up against. She said the eagerness they have to participate in her class is contagious, and she's happy to help any way she can.

Born again

Will, who asked New Times to only use his first name, is a former student of the citizenship classes at the SLO Library. When he comes to class, Will is usually carrying a bag that contains a folder with his study materials, a notebook, and a pencil. Always energetic, he's ready to answer questions and help his peers, giving them study tips and resources he acquired throughout the year that he waited for his interview.

He submitted his application in October 2018. It was then that he made the decision to leave behind his birth country and begin the path to citizenship without forgetting his roots, Will said.

After the long wait, he was much calmer at his home in San Luis Obispo. The weight he carried with him throughout the summer had lifted now that the stress of preparing for the interview was over. His home was welcoming and felt like a melting pot of cultures, similar to the country he officially became a part of Oct. 8, 2019. The space was separated into cultural themes from places his partner has visited or he's traveled to. One bathroom had a Moroccan-style lamp emitting a pattern on the walls. His fireplace looked as if it was crafted from adobe bricks.

"I'm the first one of my family to come here to the United States. I was the only one that made the change to move to far away and start a new life in a new place with a different culture, ideas, and start from zero," Will told New Times in Spanish.

Born in the city of Cartago, Costa Rica, on Sept. 17, 1979, his parents and siblings still live there today.

"I don't think the rest of my family will immigrate here because my parents are older, and my siblings have their families and their lives," he said.

He made the decision to move to the United States in 2008 after meeting his now partner. The move wasn't easy for his family, who he'd been around all his life up until that point.

"It was hard, but with time, they got accustomed to it because they understand that I'm a mature adult, and it's part of life to leave the house and make decisions for yourself," Will said.

He's constantly talking to his family over the phone or computer.

"It makes my absence easier, because I'm always communicating with them," he said.

When asked why he chose to leave his country, he says it was to continue to pursue his relationship with his partner and other opportunities.

The transition from Cartago to San Luis Obispo, the only place he's lived in since he moved to the U.S., wasn't too difficult for him. He said perhaps if he moved to Los Angeles or San Francisco, it might have been a different story.

"In those large cities I think I would have felt the strong impact of being in a place where millions of people live," he said.

SLO reminded him of Cartago, a small, tight-knit community with plenty of outdoor space to explore.

He applied for residency in 2014, got his green card, and about four years later, he submitted his naturalization application. A year later he received his invitation for the interview, which was scheduled at the immigration field office in Chatsworth, in the San Fernando Valley.

He and his partner made a weekend of it, traveling to the area a day before the appointment to avoid traffic and any other obstacles. His appointment card told him to arrive no earlier than 15 minutes before the scheduled time as there wasn't a lot of space to wait in the lobby.

Will's appointment was at 10:30 a.m., and after signing in, he waited about an hour for his number to be called.

"I had to remind myself to just remain calm. There were a lot of numbers being called, and I would watch people go in and come out," he said.

At that point, he couldn't do anything more to study. Soon enough his number was called.

The interview, he said, began with reciting the Naturalization Oath of Allegiance.

The Naturalization Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America has led to American citizenship for more than 220 years. The first naturalization law was enacted in 1790, and applicants for naturalization have taken the oath since then, but there wasn't a standard countrywide oath. At the time, the oath varied from state to state. It wasn't until the oath was amended in 1952, to emphasize service to the country, that it became uniform.

Swearing to the oath means to support the Constitution; support and defend the Constitution; give up allegiance to any other foreign state or sovereignty; bear arms on behalf of the U.S. when required by law.

Following the oath, he said the official dove right into the English writing and reading portion of the interview.

"It was super easy for me because with [Astorga], we've studied all those sentences and the words, along with sentence grammar," he said.

With each correct answer, Will said he gained confidence. He passed, and his ceremony was Oct. 8.

"For me, to have the American citizenship is a privilege, and it's like being born again," Will said.

Days before his interview, Will celebrated his 40th birthday. And now, he explained, he has another birth to celebrate: the day he became an American citizen. He's embracing his new identity.

Up to speed

Sitting at the kitchen table in her parents' home, Marlline Flores said she helped her dad gather the necessary information to submit an N-400. Flores' father has been a permanent resident in the United States since the '70s but never applied to become a citizen.

Without her help and motivation, Flores doesn't think her dad would be 

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awaiting his interview appointment right now.

"He doesn't talk about it much, but his reason for coming here was he wanted an education, and he didn't just want to work with my grandparents," she said.

She sees that a lot in her line of work.

Flores is the director of operations for Importa—a nonprofit recognized by the Department of Justice with accredited representatives who can represent clients in their petitions and applications to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. All the immigration services that are provided by Importa are free and assist individuals in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties as well as Southern San Luis Obispo County.

The individuals she helps, more often than not, came to the area in search of opportunities that might not exist in the communities they were born into. She's been helping people with their naturalization applications since 2014 and has seen a shift in the attitude of those applying.

"Back in 2014, everything seemed so much easier. People were happy to submit their naturalization applications, because it didn't feel as complicated," she said.

Recently, though, she said her clients have become more apprehensive and are afraid of submitting an application, feelings that she attributes to the current administration as well as the spread of inaccurate information on social media.

Another factor is age. Flores said, in most cases, the older permanent resident demographic of clients doesn't have someone to help them fill out an application.

"They don't have someone to help them collect all the documents needed, and sometimes they don't remember the number of trips they've made in the last few years," she said.

Flores and other Importa staff assist individuals with gathering the necessary information but also motivating them to get through the process.

"It's difficult for someone to just give you a huge list of documents that you need to put together, and it can scare you off. At Importa we all speak Spanish and we're friendly, so I think that encourages them to continue," she said.

They keep their clients motivated by sending them postcards that remind them of the important dates to submit supplemental documents with a deadline goal of turning in the application.

The latest hurdle that Flores said her clients will start seeing is an increase in immigration fees. The Department of Homeland Security wants to increase the application fee by 61 percent, according to a proposal released earlier this month. The cost would rise from $725 to $1,170.

Acting U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Director Ken Cuccinello said in a statement that the department is fee-funded.

On average, the fees that are collected by the agency compose nearly 96 percent of the department's budget. According to the statement, current fees would leave the agency underfunded by approximately $1.3 billion per year.

"USCIS is required to examine incoming and outgoing expenditures, just like a business, and make adjustments based on that analysis. This proposed adjustment in fees would ensure more applicants cover the true cost of their applications and minimizes subsidies from an already over-extended system," the statement read.

"Furthermore, the adjudication of immigration applications and petitions requires in-depth screening, incurring costs that must be covered by the agency, and this proposal accounts for our operational needs and better aligns our fee schedule with the costs of processing each request," according to the USCIS statement.

The new cost, Flores said, may be too high for many of the clients she assists, but there is a waiver that they can apply for if they meet the eligibility requirements.

The cost of a lawyer-prepared application is often out of reach for Importa's clients, so Flores said the people she works with are always overjoyed when she helps them.

"I'm giving back to the community, and just seeing their facial expressions when I tell them, 'Yeah we're doing this completely free,' and their reply is always, 'Are you serious; you're not going to charge us?'" she said.

Flores said her reply to their shock is always the same. She tells them that Importa's services are free, and all the client needs to do is spread the word that the organization is here to help. 

Get citizenship guidance

Individuals who have questions or need help with any aspect of the naturalization process can check out these resources on the Central Coast. • To apply for naturalization, print a copy of the N-400, or take a practice test, visit uscis.gov and look for the citizenship table.

  • To learn more about the citizenship class at the San Luis Obispo Library, email Aracelli Astorga at aastorga@slolibrary.org or walk into the library on Tuesday from 5 to 6 p.m.
  • Lucia Mar Adult Education offers a free citizenship class, which is currently in session. To learn more about next year’s program schedule, visit adulted.luciamarschools.org or call (805) 474-3756.
  • Catholic Charities Diocese of Monterey offers workshops about the immigration process and obtaining naturalization citizenship. Visit the San Luis Obispo Office at 3220 South Higuera St., suite 303, San Luis Obispo or call (805) 541-9110.
  • If you want to learn more about the free waiver for the citizenship application, visit uscis.gov/i-912.
  • If you’re looking for assistance with your N-400 or have questions, visit importasb.org or call (805) 604-5060.
  • Amber Heffner is a local immigration attorney whose practice is located at 2087 10th St., suite A, Los Osos. Heffner does consultations by appointment only; to schedule one, email her at amber@amberheffnerlaw.com or call (805) 316-0592.
  • Kevin C. Gregg is a local immigration attorney based in Paso Robles. His office is located at 1006 Vine St. and can be reached at (805) 296-1004. ∆

Staff Writer Karen Garcia can be reached at kgarcia@newtimesslo.com.

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